Recognizing and Preventing Agile Burnout

Agile burnout isn’t something you’re going to find in a Google search, but it’s something that may be happening right in front of you right now.   

Agile is at once a massively ubiquitous term, and often deeply misunderstood. Agile mindsets and environments are often implemented in a patchwork way. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing (we all have to start somewhere), but if you’re observing friction now, you may be able to step in before burnout becomes intractable.   

Agile uncovers better methods of developers working together while adapting to change and improving speed to market. You can turn that around, especially when you respond proactively before it pushes the team into utter dysfunction. 

When Burnout Strikes: How and Where to Spot It 

The early days of Agile transformation are heady and exciting, but that excitement can turn on you quickly if it’s not channeled effectively. What Agile shouldn’t be is the new toy that gets played with for 20 hours a day after Christmas, and then goes in the giveaway pile a month later.  

Your team may experience some initial “collaboration euphoria” and wear themselves out before they understand how to balance a new, continuous deployment environment. There are early warning signs of that euphoria going sour as your transformation takes hold.  

How well is the team communicating? 

When you notice a breakdown of communication and harmony once, maybe someone (or a group) is just having a bad day. One or two spats alone may not be a sign of impending doom.  

Where there’s consistent and obvious friction, there could soon be fire. If the team is at constant loggerheads most of the time, vs. an easy flow of communication, it’s time to slow down and revisit the building blocks of team interaction.  

Does everyone seem…well, tired?

Here’s a thing we say all the time: Continuous delivery does not imply constant work. Adults are trained early on as professionals that the only way to guarantee job security is to toss the work/life balance out the window. One of the most common misinterpretations (and mismanaged implementations of) Agile transformations is that sprints become endless…which defeats the entire point of continuous delivery!  

When sprints become marathons, you have a problem. It’s not unheard of for agile teams to assume that self-organizing comes with increased scrutiny (it shouldn’t), which then evolves into overwork. Leadership should be on the lookout for the obvious red flags.  

  • Is the defect list longer than it needs to be? 
  • Is the team letting “perfection” get in the way of good? 
  • Is the team adapting to match the circumstances or are they overly focused on the plan? 
  • Are the devs working later and later into the night? 
  • Does everyone greet the idea of a retrospective and sprint reviews with dread? 

How’s that feature list looking? 

When Waterfall mentalities and Agile teams collide, one of the early warning signs is that management still doesn’t quite understand the difference between the core application and its features. Those misdirections, informed by a fundamental misunderstanding, can result in a sort of cognitive dissonance for the team (Agile dissonance?) and the project itself will bear the cost of the overburdened feature list.   

When you see a lot of pivoting, the project may have simply lacked clarity in the early stages. What you don’t want to do is diagnose that after the team bears the brunt of these clashes of development culture. That’s messy on a lot of levels, and it’s absolutely counter how a healthy Agile team functions.  

When you’re “doing” Agile right, the team should be able to manage changing priorities as a matter of practice. But when the backlog is filled with a ton of “nice to have” features and fixes for the last batch of features, then someone needs to take better control of that list.  

Solutions for Heading Agile Burnout off at the Pass 

Pain is the body’s early warning sign. If we respond to the first twinge of it, we can hopefully manage it. If we wait for that minor pain to inspire an ER visit, you’re just gambling with more than time: You’re gambling with the health of the team and the entire project. We call them pain points for a reason. 

Remind leaders to manage expectations 

It is leadership’s role to simplify the deliverables process into bite sized chunks that will actually fit into your mouth. A sprint doesn’t imply that an entire product should be delivered at once, nor does it mean unending work. It means that you’re simplifying the process so that the goal is doing what is achievable rather than staying married to an end goal.   

Management might not quite get that at first—especially if they haven’t been deeply trained in Agile (yet).  

If your leadership is overly attached to timelines and deliverables, that may be the simple fix. In Agile, there is a dedicated role for handling the backlog and revisiting it regularly, making adjustments so those sprints don’t become impossible marathons. How can you nudge leadership towards a process of plan analysis? A simple fix may be to sit down with the folks who are aware of the issue and offer communication tactics or suggest an in-house training to get everyone on the same page.  

Communicate, and do it often 

One of the reasons that Agile has vast potential to improve teams and organizations outside of just IT is that it introduces effective communication tools. If there’s a consistent theme that we reiterate over and over again in our training and our coaching, it’s this: You all have to learn how to talk to each other. Most teams understand the vital importance of communication but it’s just not something they’re used to doing.   

Burnout often arrives just because your folks assume you won’t value them unless they are constantly nose-to-desk. You have to remind the team regularly that they aren’t there merely to prove themselves. The work should have value to them, and they should feel valued for doing the work.   

Whatever the issues are, you’re never going to know until you maintain a culture where your makers and workers feel safe and heard. In turn, you have to ask, and make sure everyone feels safe enough to be honest with you when you do.  

Give them the freedom to innovate…and take breaks 

The commonplace mentality in the earliest days of tech (and, dare we say, the actual present days of tech) is to reward workaholics. Management tended to assume that if they saw someone toiling away long after everyone went home and was the first to arrive, they must be the most productive employees in the office. What we know now is that they may just be the least efficient.   

Sketch teaches that IT folks will benefit from having a more creative and even artistic approach to work. An artist may say, “I’m going to be in-studio from 9 to 3.” Yes, artists may push towards deadlines, and work through extreme bouts of productivity. But if they worked long, endless stretches all the time, they’ll end up with subpar work that is essentially not worth the time they plugged into it in the first place.  

Push for workplace policies that embrace this approach, like pushing for shorter workdays, and paid days once or twice a month where the staff gets to work on a dream project (even if it’s not connected to the job!). Engage in conversations about personal passions and hobbies. Knowing what folks do outside the office could provide insight into where their creativity is already flourishing, giving you more tools to bring that creativity into their work.  

The creative process is also more about questions than answers, and, not coincidentally, so is collaboration. Working within an Agile framework shouldn’t equate to working harder, or longer, or adding to an endless list of backlog and change requests during a single sprint (in fact, don’t do that).   

Wherever your team is today (and trust us, we’ve seen worse!), let us know how we can help.  

Rebecca Rutherford

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