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Sustainability from a social perspective

Rik Marselis
January 19, 2023

Organizations today have an extra focus point for the quality of IT products and IT delivery processes: Sustainability. This angle of quality (or buzzword as some like to call it) is top of mind for many people that are responsible for business processes and the creation of business value.

In this blog we describe social sustainability which is the most relevant of the 3 sub-characteristics of sustainability, when training cross-functional teams.

(This is the eleventh blog in the series “How to train cross-functional teams”, for links to previous blogs please go to the end of this blog)

What is your perception of sustainability?

The world today faces many challenges. Climate change is one of them. Inclusion is another. When talking about sustainability some people think of the environment. Others incline towards social relations. In 1987 a United Nations document defined sustainable development (of society) as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” [UN 1987]

Sustainability is a very diverse subject which means different things to different people. When working together with people in order to make cross-functional teams even more successful, the social aspect is most relevant.

The definition and sub-characteristics of sustainability

In the autumn of 2022 the 3rd edition of the TMAP book “Quality for DevOps teams” was released. While working on this new edition the authors added some new subjects. Sustainability is one of those. The authors included about 25 people from all over the globe in the discussion about what sustainability should be about. They see sustainability as an extra quality characteristic related to quality in use, as an extension of the ISO25010 standard. Together they created the following definition:

Sustainability is a focus point of quality engineering that aims to minimize the unfavorable impact that business processes, the IT components that support them, and the infrastructure that hosts them, have on the planet. It promotes an approach to software and systems design, development, implementation, deployment, operation, maintenance and retirement, that emphasizes environmental perdurability and energy efficiency.

The quality characteristic Sustainability has three sub-characteristics:

•      Environmental sustainability – This includes energy consumption, carbon footprint (CO2 emission), pollution and use of scarce natural resources.

•      Economic sustainability – This includes the financial consequences such as costs and revenues, profitability, technical debt, et cetera.

•      Social sustainability – This includes the consequences for individual people, groups of people and society as a whole.


Social sustainability and its relevance for teams

Cross-functional teams work on a basis of equality of the members of the team. So an aspect of quality is equality. Of course all people are different. So equality doesn’t mean to say everybody is the same, it is about having the same rights and obligations. Important in a cross-functional team is that every member of the team is allowed to pick up any task. However, the team must also take responsibility for the quality of products. So, a team member that picks up a task must possess the right knowledge and skills to fulfil this task. The advantage of this approach is that it avoids bottlenecks of tasks that all should be done by the team member with a specific function. Instead, all team members can work together to evenly distribute the workload and thus deliver in an efficient way.

Of course, all team members are different and have different knowledge and skills. Some people in the team may not be capable (or don’t feel sure enough) to pick up a certain task. In that case they should collaborate. A very effective quality measure is pairing (e.g. pair programming or pair testing) where two team members work together on one task and build quality in from the start. This is a very good way of “learning-on-the-job” where the team as a whole grows their skills and knowledge.

Another aspect of cross-functional teams that supports their social sustainability, is the way of working, where team members review and test each other’s deliverables. This is not just to improve the product quality, but also to give feedback to team members which they can use to improve their knowledge and skills. When the entire team collaborates, this promotes inclusion.

Maintain a constant pace indefinitely

Cross-functional teams that work with an Agile mindset often try to please their product owner by taking on some more tasks than may actually fit their backlog and velocity. In Scrum the iteration is called sprint, which gives people the impression they need to move fast. But taking too much load usually isn’t lasting, there is a huge risk of people burnout or even team burnout. But even without a burnout the high pressure on the team members has a negative impact on the quality of products (by putting the stress on, the stakeholders think they will get more deliverables done, but actually they get less and with a lower quality too).

This relates to one of the principles of the Agile Manifesto which reads: “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.” So the team members and their stakeholders should carefully consider which is a pace they can maintain. And when they follow that pace their social sustainability will be good (and as a spin-off the backlog will be finished more often as scheduled and the overall quality of products is better).

How to stimulate a focus on social sustainability

The idea of equality is that in the same circumstance every person is treated the same. For a team this means that there is no difference between the treatment of team members. Although each has their own strengths and weaknesses, they all contribute to the team’s goals.

This is emphasized by paying attention to inclusion and diversity in the team. In general diverse teams perform more efficient and effective. To set up teams so that they are socially sustainability needs a culture of acceptance & cooperation rather than a competition culture. Scrum masters and other coaches must actively support this, for example by implementing indicators for collaboration instead of individual results (as the saying goes: you get what you measure!).

Some managers may think that a team of only senior experienced people will perform best. On the contrary, when the people in a team have different backgrounds and experiences, they will be complementing each other and are more likely to communicate. Senior people that explain to junior people don’t just teach the juniors but also get new insights themselves. Also junior people often have a new perspective because they don’t know that something “was always done like this”.

In a modern diverse cross-functional team the people understand that each team member is valuable to deliver the teams products with the right quality at the right moment.

With a focus on social sustainability the team members will be happy, and happy teams perform better!

This blog has been co-authored by Eva Holmquist

(For other blogs in the series “How to train cross-functional teams”, use this link:

About the author

Quality and Testing expert | Netherlands
Rik Marselis is principal quality consultant at Sogeti in the Netherlands. He has assisted many organizations in improving their IT-processes, in establishing their quality & testing approach, setting up their quality & test organization, and he acted as quality coach, QA-consultant, test manager and quality supervisor.


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