Agile Sustainability Initiative

Agile, Sustainability & Overproduction

Key takeaways

  • Less is More
  • From FOMO to JOMO
  • Digital is Physical

Some Context 

Agile professionals by their nature seek sustainable and enjoyable production that produces a lot of value without burning anyone out. It can seem like common sense that this aim aligns with the one of creating, as citizens, a sustainable and just economy for ourselves and the planet. And those aims do in fact align in many ways — but it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint actionable, nuts-and-bolts ways to make that alignment happen in our daily work.

Several Quick Start pieces on this site have mentioned helpful ideas that are relevant to this effort: For example, guiding values and principles via the Agile Sustainability Manifesto, adopting a triple bottom line approach, and assessing how sustainable current team practices are. But one aspect of the production process that can have a fundamental impact on sustainability might go completely unthought-of — especially without engagement from us agilists — and that is the subject of this article.

It’s this: doing less.

Especially in tech, the idea of simply not building something that one could build seems almost nonsensical or even heretical. One could argue that our industry is famous for ensuring that for every 1.0 there is a 1.1 with New Things in it, preferably before people have even gotten used to the 1.0. Simply being in tech seems to imply an oath to stay on the cutting edge and never relax: We feel a slight pang of guilt and/or fear if our code doesn’t use the latest framework; we intuit that whoever successfully hypes their product as the newest shiny thing wins the competition for market share; our bosses might want us to migrate to the “latest, greatest” infrastructure.

Often, there are very good reasons to do these things. If we can provide a new feature that genuinely helps users out and reduces friction for them or makes the system more secure and safe to use, that’s often a great opportunity. In turn, if we can really benefit from a new library or platform, we may decide we want to. But most of us can recall features prioritized, migrations initiated or tools adopted out of what felt more like compulsion, or FOMO, than rational intention.

“Reduce” is the first element in “reduce, reuse, recycle” for a reason. Everything we do impacts others, so when we reduce the amount that we do, we reduce our impact on others. In digital technology it can seem like adding more comes without cost — duplicating a file on my desktop seems to defy the laws of conservation of matter and energy, simply happening by magic — but this is an illusion. Our decisions add up.

From FOMO to JOMO (the Joy Of Missing Out).

This is especially true regarding product management. Elizabeth Ayer has recently written compellingly on the link between feature bloat and the extractive, exploitive attitude driving a general deterioration of quality on the Internet. Do note that Digital is Physical: clouds, lambdas, UI… have a very material base, often involving rare earth materials. What is important to realize is that the same attitude that drives overproduction also drives overconsumption and the climate crisis. (Ayer uses Cory Doctorow’s slightly profane term for this deterioration, but given the scale of the crisis, some profanity may be in order.) Ayer reminds us to honor what is rarely glorified in tech production — or in our economic attitudes in general — sustainment of existing products that have matured to their natural degree of usefulness.

What if we didn’t assume that reaching this point in a product’s life cycle, when users really don’t need it to do anything more than it does, is just…okay? What if we didn’t fight the inevitable march of time as if we could keep ourselves forever young and edgy by producing more and more? What if we made peace with sometimes — not even all the time — taking our foot off the metaphorical and literal gas?

Wrapup/Closure

We really can create great technology that does great things, and in the process, we really can ennoble ourselves and even perhaps achieve greatness ourselves. But we can never do that via compulsion. Instead, we must guide our organizations to fearlessly forego that obsession with doing it all.

It’s up to us.

We are stronger together! Let’s increase the awareness of the challenges we face and also of the Agile community’s possibilities to make a difference. Learn more about the Agile Sustainability Initiative!

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