Whenever I’m helping a Scrum team start up, I invariably find myself in a conversation talking about sprint lengths. I generally recommend two-week sprints, and almost every time the immediate response I get is, “That sounds hard, how about three weeks?” In fact, over the past few years, I have found more and more teams interested in Kanban. Why? Frequently, they tell me it’s because there is no contrived time box, so they feel it will be easier. However, as we begin talking about their process and work-in-process limits—which are usually not currently being respected—they end up asking the same question, “Establishing tight limits sounds hard, how can we make it easier?”

Innovation through Hardship

I don’t have any statistical data, but I wonder how widespread this dynamic is where teams push back against key parts of an agile framework in order to make it less stressful. Personally, I’ve always felt that a little hardship is a key part of good software development, and something we should encourage. The tension to deliver production-ready code in a short time box helps focus the team and creates positive stress, leading to innovation and other improvements. Recently, I was watching David Snowden’s XP 2012 Keynote and I was heartened to hear him explicitly say that in complex systems, there must be some level of hardship or constraint in order for new, innovative patterns to emerge. This got me searching, and I was amazed to see how many examples there are of this dynamic.

Southwest Airlines & Innovation

When Southwest Airlines first launched, they had laid out routes requiring four planes, but were only able to get three 737s. Facing the harsh prospects of being forced to cancel routes, they scrambled and sought to find ways to turn over planes faster at airports in order to keep them in the air longer. This was the beginning of a number of the operational efficiencies that Southwest continues to this day. They give the carrier an advantage in maximizing the use of its aircraft and controlling costs. Not coincidentally, Southwest has also been the only American airline to consistently turn a profit.

Innovation & Biology

If you’ve ever taken antibiotics, you know that your doctor always instructs you to take the full regimen, even if you feel better sooner. This is because with increased use of antibiotics, bacteria have developed resistance to many of the drugs, and the partial application of such a medicine may leave behind the most resistant bacteria, thereby increasing the resistance of the entire population. Overuse of antibiotics in cattle has led to scientists finding resistant strains in the soil near livestock.

Innovation & Toyota

If you’re reading this blog, then chances are you’re already very familiar with the lean manufacturing and Toyota Production Systems. What many people don’t realize is that the genesis of this waste-reducing and inventory-limiting process was the harsh necessity facing the Japanese auto industry as it rebuilt in the wake of World War II. Quite simply, they did not have the capital to build massive factories like the Americans had at the time, nor could they afford the large inventories that were typical in automobile manufacturing. Additionally, their position as a very minor player in the global industry left them very open to new ideas. Ironically, the thought leaders on quality such as Demming and Juran, who provided a key intellectual foundation to the quality movement that helped transform manufacturing, were Americans who tried to make their case to the US automakers and were just about laughed out of the country. They only found a receptive audience in Japan, where their ideas were put into practice and helped companies like Toyota, Nissan, and Honda compete with and overtake their global competitors.

When Pressure is Not Positive

Pressure to improve is not always positive. Without the skills to do a better job, team and organizations may simply take on more risk and end up actually doing worse. This is elegantly demonstrated by Tom Wujek in the Marshmallow Challenge. Normally in such a competition, groups will build structures to hold their marshmallow that are about 20-inches high. Tom experimented with a group by greatly increasing the pressure&mdsash;he offered a $5000 reward for the team with the best structure. What he found was that all the teams tried to build structures that were too tall. The end result was that none of the teams achieved a structure that was actually able to stand. That same group was brought back later, after having debriefed the exercise, and then they were able to build towers consistently much higher than the average. This leads us to the conclusion that high pressure without some capacity to improve will lead to negative stress and worse performance, but that same pressure in an environment where people can gain new skills will lead to significantly better performance.

Agile is Hard and Teams Need Help

Ultimately, I find that achieving a balance between positive pressure and a supportive environment is one of the key challenges facing organizations moving their teams to use agile practices. On one hand, businesses want to see the improvements, innovation, and increased throughput that characterize high-performing agile teams. However, this can not be achieved unless the teams have both a positive pressure to improve, as well as support in the form of excellent engineering practices, coaching, and impediment removal. So, if you’re coaching a team to high performance, what level of pressure are they feeling? Is it enough to keep them innovating and developing new solutions? On the other hand, what new skills and resources are you offering them so that they can develop new approaches and make good on the ideas they consider as they struggle to meet the demands of a short time box or a tight work-in-process limit? These are important questions for managers and team members in agile organizations to ask themselves.