One of the most exciting outcomes of Scrum being adopted by a team is innovation. Empowered teams focus on Product and Sprint Goals, but their ownership of the outcomes and the resulting affinity with the problem and stakeholders leads to surprising results. Broadly that is described as innovation. Innovation around the team’s working practices. Innovation in the product and in the case of the following interview, innovation in the broader context of climate change.
The following interview is with Marjolein Pilon, a Scrum Master from the Netherlands.
Me (DW): Marjolein, I, like everyone else, am perplexed about how I can help in the fight against climate change. But I know you have some practical ideas for how Scrum and Teams can help.
How did you get here?
Marjolein Pilon (MP):Climate change is a significant threat to the future of life on earth. Like so many others, I want to help turn the tide and actively try to reduce my carbon footprint. But my endeavors seem so small compared to the magnitude of the problem, and at times that feels really paralyzing.
Then last year, as I was looking for ways to become more sustainable, the idea started to grow that at the bank I work for, in my own Scrum Teams, we could also take the sustainability perspective. I dove into sustainable IT and started with a ‘Planet Earth Retrospective’ for my Scrum Team, where we reviewed the Principles of Green Engineering. We discussed what steps our team could take to reduce the carbon footprint of our applications.
Taking the sustainability perspective was a new approach for the team, but everyone agreed on its importance. During that session, the team estimated that optimizing our landscape and decommissioning legacy components could reduce our footprint by a significant percentage! Our Product Owner decided to add the topic to the backlog so the team could start working on it.
What if all Scrum Teams would do that? I started to give workshops about ‘the Planet as a Stakeholder’, where I help teams look at their IT services through the sustainability lens and let them define the first steps forward.
DW: Tell me a bit more about these ideas about achieving sustainability.
MP: IT is often seen as a driver for a more sustainable world, but like other sectors, we also need to reduce our footprint to help decarbonize the world. We all emit carbon in our work, but the challenge is to get as much value out of that in our use. Sustainable IT consists of carbon-efficient applications and infrastructure with minimization of harmful effects. Applications that add the same value to customers but emit less carbon.
One of my Scrum Teams decided their first step was to generate insights into our carbon footprint. First, they began assigning arbitrary values to items such as virtual servers, network connections, and redundant components to get a value for how carbon-intensive they are (relative to each other). After that, the team identified where we could reduce carbon emissions and took it from there.
Another team decided to make an inventory of low-hanging fruit, mainly decommissioning and downscaling no longer-needed environments, and made a sustainability sprint. They introduced a sustainability flag to track items that reduce our carbon footprint. The sprint review showed the value they achieved for the planet, reducing an estimated 4 tons of CO2 per year. They also introduced a monthly sustainability team meeting to discuss the progress and share knowledge and ideas to become more carbon efficient.
Management supports these initiatives and relies on the team’s professionalism to determine the possibilities of decommissioning and downscaling without endangering performance.
DW: What are the biggest challenges?
MP: Climate change is so complex, and it can be overwhelming. Cause and effect are not related on the scale that we can act, so you don’t see the impact of your endeavors immediately (or at all). For example, it’s impossible to say: as a company, we reduced our carbon by X amount, so we prevented, for example, flooding from happening.
Measuring emitted carbon is a complex challenge, often estimated rather than measured. But, it is possible with some effort, and teams must find ways (and share good practices!). The path toward sustainable IT is not paved. We must find new ways, take small steps, inspect, and adapt.
Being mindful of the planet and future generations requires courageous leadership with a vision for the long term (a generation instead of a year!), actionable steps toward that vision, and at the same time, balancing short-term needs with the long-term journey.
DW: But what happens if the organization is super busy and uninterested in climate change?
MP: First of all, most organizations would be thrilled to have teams with sustainable IT initiatives! Most (if not all) companies want to be part of the climate solution but may find it challenging to prioritize the planet over short-term priorities and short-term (financial) results.
If the managing board in your organization is still not interested, you can highlight the benefits of sustainable initiatives, like:
Cost savings: applications that run as energy efficiently as possible are usually also more cost-effective
Performance gains: optimizations like right-scaling your infrastructure, regularly cleaning resources, minimizing environments, etc., often lead to performance gains and enhanced maintainability
Employee engagement: people love being part of something bigger than themselves. Implementing sustainable initiatives can help create a sense of employee engagement, purpose, and pride.
Improved brand reputation: Prioritizing sustainability is increasingly important to attract customers and top talent
Overall, prioritizing sustainability has numerous benefits, including financial and non-financial benefits. By implementing sustainable practices, companies can create a better future while also benefiting in the short term.
DW: Marjolein shared some interesting data that I have included here.
Footprint in percentages
It is estimated that data centers use 1% of global electricity, and researchers estimate that the entire footprint of the IT sector is about 4% (this also includes the life-cycle of devices) and will continue to grow exponentially. Footprints are very hard to calculate and even harder to compare, but researchers state that the footprint of IT is larger than aviation.
DW: Ok, what are the biggest takeaways, what should our readers do next if they would like to support these initiatives?
Get the conversation started! Raise awareness in your team and do a Planet Earth Retrospective (you can find an example here). To get the conversation on sustainable IT going, you don’t need to be an expert on sustainability or a technical person.
Small steps in the right direction create a big impact. It always starts with your first actionable step forward. Here are some ideas on how to get started:
Gain knowledge on sustainable IT (This 30-minute training by Microsoft The Principles of Sustainable Software Engineering is a good start.)
Find tools to measure the environmental impact of your services. Depending on where your services are running, for example the Azure Emissions Dashboard, or the AWS Carbon Footprint Tool.
Start treating the planet as a stakeholder. Add it as a stakeholder in your epic and/or story templates. This helps you to consider the impact of your product on the planet on all levels.
Identify low-hanging fruit and plan a sustainability sprint.
Introduce a sustainability flag to track the backlog items that will reduce your services’ carbon footprint and make your progress a recurring item in the sprint review.
And don’t forget: inspire others by sharing what you are doing. Even if your endeavors seem small, you will raise awareness around you.
Let’s unite within the Scrum community and create a worldwide movement of Scrum Teams that view the planet as their most important stakeholder. Teams that are actively reducing their carbon footprint and sharing knowledge on how to do that. Because together, with all our small steps combined, we can make a positive change for our planet and future generations!