Agile and happiness

Flow is one word which finds itself both in Lean principles and also in psychology. (In lean principles, flow refers to the flow of value whereas in psychology, it refers to highly attentive state of mind). At first glance, it’s hard to see any connection (but, it seems, there is). Whatever, I couldn’t help wondering – does working lean make people any happier?

James.P.Womack and Daniel.T.Jones in their classic ‘Lean Thinking‘ bridges between two flows (Chapter: Flow):

Classic batch-and-queue work conditions are hardly conducive to psychological flow. The worker can see only a small part of the task, there is often no feedback (much less immediate feedback), the task requires only a small portion of one’s concentration and skills, and there are constant interruptions to deal with other tasks in one’s area of responsibility.

By contrast, work in an organization where value is made to flow continuously also creates the conditions for psychological flow. Every employee has immediate knowledge of whether the job has been done right and can see the status of the system. Keeping the system flowing smoothly with no interruptions is a constant challenge, and a very different one, but the product team has the skills and a way of thinking which is equal to the challenge.

Dr. Womack, later (in an article ‘Leaning towards Utopia‘, was challenged by an evangelist that all these end up in more material affluence, not any more happiness. He ruefully agreed:

Look, the most satisfying thing in life isn’t to have wealth. It’s to be part of a creative, productive process. Even climbing toward heaven’s gate is a process. Material wealth is just the excuse for raising our awareness of the processes we’re in.

The article ends with the note: “In the end, he realized, that’s utopia – not to live in a lean world but to be preoccupied, like Dr. Womack and Mr. Jones, in helping the world we’re in get a little bit leaner each day.”

Martin Seligman, who largely revived and popularized positive psychology, led a project to compile empirical findings of psychological well-being from the perspective of positive psychology. The result is a handbook Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (CSV) which describes and classifies strengths and virtues that enable human thriving and intended to be a framework for creating new interventions. The general scheme of CSV draws on six overarching virtues found across different cultures, and strengths identified under each virtue. The virtues are Wisdom and Knowledge, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence. Each virtue has defined strengths, 24 in all.

Jump-cut to software development. Kent Beck relies a lot in values and principles as underlying foundation for XP/extreme programming practices. (Values, here, give purpose and meaning to behavior; and principles guide behavior). Some of the values and principles he endorses are courage, flow, reflection, baby steps, communication, humanity, mutual benefit, so on.

It doesn’t take long to see a pattern or similarity between Seligman’s virtues and Beck’s values. Does this mean that a well-formed XP team with solid foundation of endorsed values will have huge potential for positive psychological interventions and thus a happier existence?

Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, father of Flow, defines as characteristics of flow activities – clear set of goals; immediate and relevant feedback; challenges and skills in balance. If these conditions are met in daily work, there’s a high chance that a person may experience flow, and, in long run, feel happier. Agile practices like sprint demos, done-done status, daily build, daily scrums and standup meetings, cross-functional teams, pair programming all align towards the criteria for flow. Besides that, such principles of team ownership, time-boxed committment, collaboration and communication, improvisations all foster optimism, adaptation, gratitude, sharing, relationships, so on. Positive psychologists (Seligman, Valliant, etc) have gathered enough empirical evidences to believe that such feelings go a long way in increasing chances of well-being.

Happiness, or rather the understanding and measuring part of it, is not as tricky as believed to be. From Kahneman’s day-reconstruction method to Csikszentmihalyi’s ESM to Seligman’s Strength Survey, we seem to have ways to assess human experiences. It will be well-worth to have empirical findings across organizations to see how the mode of working – Lean or Agile, for instance – affect well-being of people. Since we seem to have the ways, what’s remaining is perhaps the will.