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From strategy to an everyday mindset: embracing sustainability in product development

Published in Sustainability, Agile

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February 12, 2024 · 6 min read time

As companies face increasing demands for more sustainable business practices, product development becomes a tool for transformation. To embrace sustainability holistically, businesses need to implement their strategic sustainability goals and commitments into concrete actions and metrics.

Intuitively, it would seem that The Agile Manifesto and the Agile principles derived from it would be a natural fit within a more sustainable business environment. This is especially visible within the eighth principle: Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

So what does this mean in practice?

"I would say that sustainability, within an agile product development context, is partly about asking the right questions and providing the tools to make conscious decisions about sustainability. Our role as enterprise coaches is to encourage already-used methods to enable sustainable strategy execution from the team level to the strategic level." says Nitor’s Enterprise Coach Linnea Zetterström.

This is done by enabling everyone to make the decisions that matter, and contribute to environmental, social, and economic sustainability accordingly. One practical method is to integrate sustainability questions into retrospectives – a phase in agile where the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. Another is to integrate sustainability into the Definition of done (DoD) criteria, e.g. we have successfully limited the ecological footprint of this release,

Ari Koli, Senior Enterprise Coach, and Sustainability Engineer at Nitor, underlines the indispensable need to embed a sustainable mindset within product development.

“Agile has always been a very human-centric approach, and so it plays well with social metrics that measure how people are managing their workload,” Koli points out.

For other dimensions of sustainability, the work is underway. "Until fairly recently, the concrete steps and tools have been missing to transfer strategic goals into actions. But changes are afoot: we’re seeing interesting and important approaches, for instance, from the design community, which is embracing concepts such as planet centric design. This sort of thinking needs to extend to other fields, such as product leadership. Companies need to take on the role of industry innovators, and continuously develop and deliver cutting-edge products while prioritising environmental and social responsibility in their overall business practices."

While agile methods can be a part of supporting the shift toward more sustainable ways of working as well as a more sustainable end product, the integration needs to go deeper.

“One concrete tool we’re using to root sustainability thinking into an all-encompassing practice is via product leadership coaching and training,” Koli mentions.

The challenge is that many companies have defined sustainability as a part of their strategy but are lacking in implementation and concretisation – sometimes entirely. Furthermore, it’s important to consider the broader views instead of focusing on environmental aspects alone.

“Apart from the carbon footprint, which is obviously important, we need to consider factors like customer inclusion and ethics of the product we’re developing – is the product accessible to all? On a team level, we should consider if our cooperation is inclusive and if we work at a sustainable pace to, for example, prevent burnout,” Koli says.

It starts with a mindset shift

The road to sustainable transformation needs a mindset shift. “We have the knowledge by and large, but we need to connect the dots in product development. We need to ask questions like do we monitor the carbon footprint of our products, or if we have incentives in place for people who have the right know-how to solve sustainability-related issues. Additionally, without relevant data, we might not be aware of existing problems and won’t be able to find solutions either,” Zetterström says.

Until late, there has been a lack of concrete tools to make the changes. Companies also need to pay attention to coherence: how the product leaders talk about sustainability and the actual requirements of products and systems. For example, if a system must be on all the time, it may conflict with the aim for more sustainable design.

The way we think must be overhauled from the traditional way of thinking. It starts with the stakeholders.

“We need to consider the planet, vis-a-vis Kate Raworth’s doughnut economy thinking, as one key stakeholder in the development process.”, Koli comments.

Sustainability is a holistic change. According to Koli, the agile community has traditionally been focusing on the how i.e. getting things done more quickly. But speeding up the process mightlead to a focus which is unsustainable by developing more and more features, products, and services. Yet, there is a cost for every line of code be it financial or environmental – as we have seen with the rise of attention paid to the likes of Green Coding.

“We need to consider the sustainable and ethical points of view: just because we can, should we? Does it achieve the outcomes we need to see? After that, comes the traditional question of how. Even if we can build a product, for example, we need to consider if we should and does building it makes sense. “

Companies need to ask these questions during early validations to figure out if the product or service also contributes to the environmental and social metrics. s. According to Zetterström, another critical aspect often overlooked is decommissioning. The tendency is to focus on creating new and additional systems – whether it concerns an entirely new project or the updating of an old one.

“For still operational legacy systems, for example, a crucial step is to assess whether these old and potentially resource-intensive systems should already be phased out. The decommissioning of systems plays a pivotal role in resource utilisation and efficiency,” Zetterström says.

Sustainability is no longer optional

The age-old dilemma of what should come first, the economy or the environment, seems less and less an issue each day.

“First of all, we need to act now. The environmental crisis is already here. We can't focus on the long-term future alone, and we need to find sustainable solutions for the short-term urgently” Koli says.

This sentiment is reflected in the business community. For example, an increasing number of businesses are signing up for Science-Based Targets and setting ambitious climate goals. Additionally, incoming regulatory changes have concrete impacts on companies of all sizes.

According to the Osuuspankki’s Survey of Large Corporations 2024 (PDF, in Finnish), 56 percent of large companies are planning to change their subcontractor due to sustainability goals in the near future, and 42 percent have already made the switch.
“It’s clear that adopting sustainability is sound business: an increasing number of companies are emphasising sustainability and ethics, and expect their supply chain to comply with environmental, economic, and social demands. Product development needs to follow suit,” Koli says.

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