Striving To Be Happy in an Agile Environment

by Holger Paffrath

A happy worker is a productive worker, a happy worker is a more accomplished worker, and a happy worker is a more healthy worker.

Have you ever sat in one of those emotional retrospectives where everyone draws a happy or sad face or a graph to show their feelings depending on how they felt the Sprint went?

They can and do feel like BS, especially to programmers like myself who are introverted and would prefer to sit in a dark room all day coding rather than share their feelings. However, there is some merit to measuring happiness during a sprint.

We have to do some clarification about what happiness is work-wise. It's not playing around all day, browsing Facebook or shooting each other with Nerf guns. It's more when are you happy being productive. You know the feeling; when you're in the zone. Time seems to pass by without you noticing and at the end of the day when it's time to go home (you have to be reminded that it's time to go home, as you are so focused), you have a feeling that you have accomplished something. These days are as rare as hen's teeth, but damn they feel good.

What is the magical formula that brings us those days? According to Lean Thinking, it is when the following criteria are met:

  • You have a clear objective. In other words, you know exactly what you need to accomplish.
  • The need for concentration is intense; so intense that no attention is left over to think about other things.
  • There's a lack of interruptions and distractions (this rules out the modern workplace!).
  • You receive clear and immediate feedback on the progress towards the objective. In other words, you have a feeling that you're getting somewhere.
  • There's sense of challenge (but not too much of a challenge). Your skills need to be just adequate enough to complete the task. If it's too hard, you get frustrated. If it's too easy, you get bored.

Jeff Sutherland is one of the co-creators of Scrum. His book Scrum, the Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time summarizes Scrum in three points:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

I like this definition more. It's short and direct. But what do these words mean?

Autonomy comes from having a certain level of control over how you do a task or, more likely, how you accomplish a goal. The more vague the goal, the more the person has control over how you accomplish the end result. The more detailed the task, the fewer choices the person has on how to accomplish it and the more they feel a cog rather than a thinking person.

There was recently a scientific study that discussed the mortality rate of a person based on the level of control they had over their job. The findings were that if you have low control in a high-demand job, you have a 15.4% increase in the chance of death compared to a low-control, low-demand job.

For a high-control, high-demand type job, there was a 34% decrease in the odds of death compared to a high-control, low-demand job. So, having more control and a little bit of stress is actually good for you.

Mastery is where we want to learn more and get better. It's the struggle for perfection. It is what gives us a sense of challenge. When we are in the zone, we are learning. We are trying to figure out that little puzzle and put all of the pieces together. Once we have mastered that problem, we have accomplished something, and that little snippet of knowledge is tucked away for next time. (Not to mention the dopamine shot we get to activate the pleasure centers!)

Finally, there is purpose. This is what drives us to keep going. Without a purpose, all of our work feels like it is being done for nothing. That purpose needs to be perceived because without the perception of purpose, it doesn't matter how important the job is; it will have no meaning to the person carrying out the task.

So, why is happiness important? Quite simply, a happy worker is a productive worker. A happy worker is a more accomplished worker and a happy worker is a more healthy worker.

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