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Marc, the quality architect for a mid-size software firm, was presenting to a conference room full of engineers. Miranda, a front-line engineering manager at the company, had asked him to help her navigate a shift her team was making.

“So, to wrap up: we have three phases of software development. We start in startup, or make it work. Then many products move into stabilization, or make it work well. Finally, we finish in sustaining, or keep it working.

“This matters because many people prefer one phase over another. We’re going to spend the next fifteen minutes creating a kind of scatterplot of how we feel about each phase, and how we feel about those feelings. Then we’ll discuss what we discover.”

We have feelings about each stage

Marc drew three columns on the whiteboard. He labeled them StartupStabilization, and Sustaining. Then, he placed three stacks of sticky notes and several piles of pens on the table.

“Grab a stickie and fill it with an emotion you feel about one of the three phases. Use words, an image, or whatever you like.

“Use a green stickie if you’re happy about the emotion, a yellow stickie if you’re neutral about it, and an orange stickie if you don’t enjoy the feeling.

“When you’re ready, place the stickie in the appropriate column on the whiteboard.

“People often have multiple emotions about each phase. So, add as many stickies as you like to each column.”

He stepped back as the team got to work.

We tend to join a team that’s in our preferred phase

Fifteen minutes later, Marc noticed the activity had shifted from adding stickies to reading them. 

A board filled with stickie notes describing the emotions one engineering team had about each of the phases of software development

After asking everyone to sit back down, he asked, “What did you discover?”

Phoebe’s hand was first up. “We seem to love the startup phase. But we’re pretty neutral about stabilization. And, we mostly don’t like sustaining. I wonder if that’s related to us being in the middle of transitioning from startup to stabilization?”

“That is likely,” Marc replied. “We tend to join teams in the phase we most enjoy.”

Mandy’s hand shot up. “Mandy?”

“Is this why so many people all over the company are leaving recently?” Mandy asked.

Miranda spoke up. “That’s definitely the case for some departures,” she answered. “I know; I’ve asked.”

Knowing your preferred stage helps you handle the other stages

“OK, Matthew, on to you,” Marc said.

“Two comments,” Matthew started. “First: we’re moving into stabilization. As Phoebe mentioned, we seem pretty neutral about this phase. Even the ‘get to work on exciting thing‘ comments, which I would have guessed were happy, are only marked neutral. What can we do to make that work more enjoyable?

“Second, I wonder what we can do now to make the sustaining phase less miserable? Even if we aren’t the ones around at that point, I bet whoever is here would be grateful.”

Lots of heads around the table were nodding.

“Many of the other engineering managers are noticing the same things and asking these same questions,” Miranda said. “If you’d like to join the discussion, join the make-stabilization-great-again channel in our team chat.”

These stages and our preferences regarding them hold across every level of detail

Deb spoke up next. “I think these phases occur in our features too. And, I see this same pattern there. Lots of excitement in the beginning. Our excitement wanes as we head into feature complete. And we seem pretty bored when during final validation. It’s like we’re just going through the motions at that point.”

“You’re right,” Marc agreed. “Every feature does go through startup, stabilization, and sustaining phases. Every sprint does too.”

Connor said, “That makes Matthew’s question about making the stabilization and sustaining phases less miserable much more immediate. I bet our sprint velocity would get more consistent—and, maybe, higher—if we could maintain excitement and motivation all the way through.”

Switching stages can cause changes in productivity

Marc checked the clock.

“We’re about out of time,” he noted. “Let’s summarize what we discovered today.

“First, people tend to join a team that’s in their preferred phase. Then, if the team heads into a different stage, they may decide to leave rather than make the transition.

“Second, knowing we’re heading into a phase that isn’t our favorite allows us to search for ways to make it more palatable. Join the channel Miranda mentioned to discuss that further.

“Third, these phases occur at every level, from the entire product down to individual sprints.

“Any other questions?”

When it became clear no one had anything else to add, Miranda spoke up.

“Thank you, Marc, for this exercise. I have a better understanding now of the variations I’ve been noticing in our productivity. OK if I share this exercise with the other engineering managers?”

“Absolutely,” Marc affirmed. “And let me know how else I can help!”

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