“Maximizing the art of the work not done” is a familiar principle of the Agile Manifesto. Leaders seeking to guide their organizations through this period of rapid change and disruption should consider a corollary – “maximizing the art of the stress not had.” Leaders are often unaware of the level and cost of stress they impose on their workforce. Stress interferes with learning, erodes resilience, and ultimately magnifies change fatigue. Furthermore, leaders under stress are prone to revert to the “muscle memory” of directive, command-and-control ways of working, inadvertently damaging the Agile culture they intend to promote.
As a leader, you make decisions daily based on factors like commercial benefit, risk, and competitive opportunities. I propose that you consider including “stress elimination” as a decision criterion. In this Advisor, I highlight three specific sources of organizational stress: overfocus on form, wishful thinking, and centralized decision making. For each, I offer approaches for alleviating this stress. I challenge you to experiment with these and observe the results. By alleviating stress, you will create a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle of time for clear thinking.
It’s About Flow, Not Form
Change is stressful, and the transition to Agile ways of working demands changes to well-worn habits and culture. The natural human tendency to want to get things “right” and the fear of doing something wrong can prevent people from getting started at all. Resistance to change has its roots in uncertainty and doubt, and this becomes more profound as Agile expands beyond early adopters in the organization. Focus on solid execution with strong basics, but do not expect immediate mastery. If you have unrealistic expectations about Agile maturity, everyone else will, too, and this may present a barrier to entry and put an undue focus on compliance. Signs that your focus has gone awry include statements like “SAFe says …”, “Why aren’t our leaders …”, “Shouldn’t that team …”, and “That’s not Scrum!” Compliance-based Agile is the opposite of what we seek. Too much attention to form produces mechanical and rigid teams that are focused on process precision instead of results.
Ultimately, no one gets a gold star from checking all the Agile boxes. We adopt Agile because it offers better flow, predictability, and transparency. We want these outcomes and we accept that at its core, Agile has plan-do-check-adjust cycles. Thus, the most important steps are getting started and having the discipline to improve. If you want Agility with less stress, resist insisting on useless precision. Instead, value experimentation over getting it “right.” Accept and acknowledge uncertainty. Give your teams permission to pivot based on what they’ve learned. Measure and prioritize flow over flawless Agile.
No More Wishful Thinking
Wishful thinking, in the form of too many top priorities, excessive concurrent work, and unrealistic deadlines, is an Agility killer. An overloaded pipeline cannot pivot or deliver continuously. There is no time to retrospect or innovate, and quality is often traded to salvage false deadlines. There is no greater source of stress for today’s workforce than competing priorities and too much work in progress (WIP). In Agile, capacity matching offers a very practical, evidence-based antidote to excessive WIP. We calculate capacity (for an iteration or a program increment) and commit work within that capacity, preserving a sufficient margin to protect predictability.
Matching work to capacity is the social contract of Agile. Unnecessary fixed dates and false must-haves sabotage this social contract and are a source of tremendous stress. When wishful thinking overrides evidence, we destroy objective measurement of progress, the most basic benefit of Agile. Facts are friends. Not because we always like the facts, but because facts guide solid decisions. Ignoring facts is a textbook symptom of a pathological culture.
The tendency for wishful thinking runs deep. Counteract this by asking your organization for facts instead of the impossible. When asking for something extraordinary, say so: “We’ve never done anything like this before and I don’t know if it’s possible. I’m asking you to do everything you can to make it happen. What do you need from me to try?” Do not undermine capacity matching with sideways injection of work, assignments to individuals, or made-up milestones.
Here’s another way to reduce stress: cheer from the sidelines. Build trust with your team by listening to facts. Have confidence in your team members and communicate this continually. Say “I know you all have got this! What do you need to learn next?” Listen to your workforce. Understand their constraints and fix them. The benefits are immeasurable: your organization gets the right message, and when you take care of your team, your team takes care of the work. Doing this consistently will propel your organization past a compliance-based bureaucratic outlook to a generative culture.
Decentralize Decision Making
In a centralized decision-making organization, leaders often become the bottleneck and a source of waste because they lack the information needed to make good decisions. Teams try their best to compensate for this, exerting effort trying to summarize and present information to their leaders for decision making. Generally, teams already know the best decision, have already made their choice, and have emotionally begun acting on that decision. Time spent on analysis for leaders rarely (almost never) improves over the team’s first recommendation and poses the risk of turning the team off if the “wrong” decision is made. Typically, this process merely burns valuable clock time and capacity while adding no additional decision value.
This centralized decision-making cycle causes stress: both for the leaders under the demands of many decisions, and for the workforce under the multiple demands of justifying, delivering, and reporting status of the work. I have seen leaders stuck for months wrestling with what to do, thinking “We can’t start until I figure this out,” and teams wishing desperately to focus on delivering while buckling under “death by PowerPoint.”
Agile offers a solution that is simple but not easy: stop making decisions! Resist telling your teams how to deliver their work. Instead, activate the brain power of the workforce to solve your stickiest business problems. Tell them what is needed and in what priority, but not how to make it happen. Build self-directed teams by ensuring strategic alignment and gradually giving them the authority to make decisions. For guidance on building successful teams, see David Marquet’s books Turn the Ship Around and Leadership is Language. Marquet’s intent-based leadership model instructs leaders to ensure competency (the skills to do the job well) and clarity (vision) and let the team do the rest. This will eliminate gridlock, build empowerment, and free leaders to focus on vision and strategy.
It is true that leaders sometimes have experience or context that their teams do not yet have. However, the long-run cost of overdirecting is often greater than the expense of a slower delivery. Exercise patience as the team learns things that you already know. By consistently protecting self-direction, you are prioritizing the strength of the teams that compose your delivery pipeline over the particular thing in flight at the moment. You are creating conditions in which these teams will become knowledgeable, creative, determined, and motivated. I guarantee that confident, self-directed teams have more long-run value to your organization than the item they are working on.
As a leader, spend your time solving impediments, expressing confidence, and asking questions that ignite learning. Imagine what you can do with the time formerly spent deliberating decisions, and what your organization can do with all the capacity formerly spent on PowerPoint!
Stress incurs big costs for you and your organization. It shows up in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Under duress, all of us are less effective, less creative, and less collaborative. When stressed, we are less likely to attribute good intent, think of a breakthrough innovation, or embrace the purpose of our organization. The resulting impairment of collaboration, creativity, and engagement erode culture, organizational health, and business results.
Your workforce reads the emotional tenor of your organization from its leaders. Although it’s impossible to make work conditions entirely stress free, focusing on flow instead of form, eliminating wishful thinking, and decentralizing decision making all show a committed practice to deliberately reducing these stressors. It can be as simple as offering a kind word or as challenging as facing the facts on a critical deadline. Committing yourself to “the art of the stress not had” will surely result in a happier, more effective you, as well as a more engaged and effective workforce.