I enjoy discussions of the technical theory and mechanics of agile development as much as the next person, but it is the human aspect of what we do that truly intrigues me. I found out about the Whitehall Studies a couple of years ago while watching a documentary on stress. In a nutshell, an initial study of British Civil Service workers was done in 1967 that showed a higher incidence of disease and premature death among those in the lower employment grades. A subsequent study between 1985 and 2004 was conducted to try to figure out why. Turns out it had nothing to do with income, living conditions, diet, or healthcare.
There were a lot of interesting correlations discovered through this study, but one in particular caught my attention. Although conventional wisdom said that executives experienced more stress because of their level of responsibility, it wasn’t the executives who were dying young. The major cause of illness, in fact, was determined not to be high demands, but the combination of high demands and low control.
Just as this lethal mixture described the circumstances under which the subjects of this study were laboring, we don’t have look too far to find organizations (software development or otherwise) whose people are swimming in the same toxic soup. I’ve known for a long time that well-functioning, self-directed teams are highly productive and loads of fun to work on. It might not be a stretch now to say that serving on a self-directed agile team that is empowered to control how it gets its work done may even add years to your life!