Overcoming the seduction of the hamster wheel

Does your software team feel like it is on a hamster wheel? Maybe delivery pressure has been high for a long while, or there is a constant stream of support work to be done… so it’s just “heads down and keep going”. This way of working can be seductive… after all, we are getting things done and responding to “what’s wanted from us”. After a while, it becomes habit, our familiar way of working. Is there a better way? And if so, how do we get there?

Hamster wheel

Why change it?

Over time, the hamster wheel effect hurts us in some obvious and not-so-obvious ways. Impacts include:

  • Individuals on the team begin to feel burned out. Engagement and creativity suffer. Attrition increases.
  • Quality suffers as improvements and refactoring are continually deferred.
  • The same issues keep cropping up and getting dealt with – only to return.
  • Customer satisfaction stagnates.

What can we do about it?

Getting off the hamster wheel is not necessarily an easy task… it is an example of an adaptive challenge – one in which values, beliefs, roles and relationships play a significant part of maintaining the status quo. Here are a few thoughts on steps that can help move in the desired direction…

  • Acknowledge the challenge and create space: recognize that you may have a hamster wheel going on, and that resolving it may not be simple.
  • Make time: for dialogue and experiments
  • Vision: engage the team – and ideally those affected outside the team – to envision what they want to create. Ask: “What would greatness look like?”
  • Experiment: try changing something
  • Reflect: use reflection tools such as retrospectives to learn from experience. If possible, include exploration of questions such as:
    • “What does this situation tell us about what we think is true of the world?”
    • “How are we colluding or contributing to keeping the hamster wheel going?”

What about you?

Have you faced a hamster wheel challenge? How did you deal with it? Or are you facing one now? What’s your first step to getting off the hamster wheel?

Originally published March 15th, 2018 on the Innovative Software Engineering blog. Republished with permission.