agile kanban board (Karashaev/


How to help agile teams avoid fatigue and burnout

Government agencies are increasingly realizing the value and benefits of moving to an agile methodology. They are capitalizing on the optimized speed, quality and stakeholder satisfaction that agile brings to the table and starting to reap the benefits of finely tuned teams that are fast, focused and constantly engaged in feedback loops to refine processes and products.

But this speed can bring unwanted side effects. The increased pressure on teams to perform at a fast clip can make them ripe for fatigue or burnout much sooner than traditional waterfall teams.

When symptoms of fatigue begin to manifest, transparency in feedback loops begins to disappear, missed commitments occur and teams start to delivery lower quality products. Once members show signs of burnout, teams can quickly start turn over, top talent is lost and -- in a worst-case scenario -- agencies can lose support for agile altogether.

Fatigue can pop up in varying places in agile methodology. The transition to agile or cadence misalignment within production can also cause fatigue. Additionally, the repetitive nature of the roles certain team members play can lead to burnout.

Here are some tips to keep burnout from becoming a problem.

Set reasonable goals during the transition to agile

The act of transitioning from traditional methodologies to an agile methodology can be fatiguing, particularly if stakeholders or team members overthink the transition itself. Once the decision to follow agile is made, start quickly by:

Ensuring the backlog is "just good enough." Don't waste time perfecting a list of product features or tasks that, by the nature of agile, is going to change over time. An attempt to perfect this list at the beginning of a project creates tension among team members who know agile methods and stakeholders who do not. Start with an imperfect backlog and transparent communication to keep anxiety and fatigue from building and know that the grooming and retrospectives will mature the backlog quickly and continue over time.

Creating lightweight team “norms.” These define how team members interact, communicate, work with each other and use the agile tool set, helping ensure that members are on the same page and play by the same rules. As with the backlog, norms should be just good enough to get started, and teams should be empowered to know they can change these norms over time through the retrospective process. Establishing a culture where team norms will be respected builds team morale and wards off fatigue as teams transition to agile.

Stay on the lookout for role-based fatigue

Team members, scrum masters and product owners are all susceptible to burnout. Take their unique roles into account by:

Empowering team members.  It is important to use retrospectives to give team members a voice to shape norms and culture and to allow feedback that can help improve work, processes and communications. Individual team members can and should take ownership of specific goals and outcomes and should be recognized for their successes. Failures should be viewed as opportunities for improvement.

Building in technical debt iterations. Team members are aware that speed and acceptable levels of imperfection create technical debt. Building in the opportunity to clear this debt alleviates the angst and anxiety behind a natural desire for perfection.

Supporting scrum masters and product owners. To effectively lead teams, scrum masters must be empowered by both product owners and team members. Product owners should be given as much information as possible and be supported by agency senior leadership. It is also a good idea to rotate in alternate scrum masters and product owners during successive sprints to reduce demands on individuals.

Agile meetings have specific purposes

Agile rituals form the backbone of agile methodology. Team rituals should address when meetings occur, which meetings are used and what team norms are followed. Once these are in place, ensure that all team members, scum masters and product owners are adhering to and respecting the cadence. The balancing of iteration grooming sessions, planning meetings, daily scrums and review and retrospectives throughout the development lifecycle is a key part of warding off agile fatigue. Teams need the freedom to develop their own cadence, but with agile, shorter is generally better. Keep in mind that the retrospective process exists to adjust the cadence over time.

Adopting agile methodologies brings increased speed and stakeholder satisfaction as well as better quality outcomes, but agile teams run hot and can burn out more quickly than traditional teams. Embrace starting quickly, failing fast, failing early but improving quickly as a culture. Support individuals playing different roles and allow them to leverage the retrospective process to mold efficient and easy processes and cadences. Take advantage of the review process to give visibility for success and always be on the lookout for signs of burnout to keep agile teams energized for the long haul.

About the Authors

Todd Hager is vice president, Strategic Initiatives, at Macro Solutions.

Eric Protzman is program manager at Macro Solutions.

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