Day in the life of a responsible firekeeper: your journey from installing to embodying ETHOS

In our previous blog post, we explored how Elemental Ethics – as a responsible firekeeping practice – corrects the shortsightedness of agile and other fire-focused practices. These practices focus too much on working software while ignoring the wider responsibilities we have towards each other and the planet.

Recognizing the wider responsibilities doesn’t mean saying no to working software and keeping customers happy; in fact, Elemental Ethics expands the definition of whom the software works for and who the customer is. And on a personal level, it also changes and challenges the relationship we have to our work.

Becoming a responsible firekeeper

So today, I’d like to explore how embracing responsible firekeeping rather than agile firefighting changes your day-to-day experience of showing up for work as a human. It doesn’t matter if you’re a developer, designer, or product owner. Imagine the organization you work for has decided to give responsible firekeeping a go.

As a first step, your team decides to start using the Tethix ETHOS for Slack app.

You’re not too keen on adding another tool to your stack, but at least it integrates into Slack, which is the first thing you open on your work laptop as you begin your day. As you sip your first morning coffee, the ETHOS app invites you to think about how you will nurture your team’s values and principles within the next 4 weeks. You know, those abstract values HR likes to remind everyone of? Well, these values are now seeds for your team’s ETHOS Garden, and you have to think about how you can bring one or more of them to life in the next 4 weeks, with concrete actions.

You are invited to commit to a pledge.

It’s a daunting task, but you find it helpful to see the pledges your teammates have already committed to, and you give it a go.

Initially, you start by writing fire-focused pledges because you’re so used to thinking about the product – your team’s fire – that you’ve been working on for some time now. So you start by thinking about how these abstract values, your team’s seeds, could be translated into new features. You commit to two fire pledges in your first month. And you start getting a bit curious about this whole ETHOS thing as you observe how nurturing your pledges every week makes the seeds your team has planted in the ETHOS Garden grow.

Getting reminded of your pledges by the ETHOS app actually changes the way you think about your work, bit by bit. You uncover new perspectives, start seeing new solutions, or even begin to see the problem you’re trying to solve in a new light. And every week, you continue to observe how nurturing your pledges contributes to your team’s ETHOS Garden.

The entire team celebrates as one of your seeds grows into a tree, thanks to the nutrients provided by collective effort over the past month. You’re beginning to see how your everyday actions add up to the actions of others in your team, not just to build and release exciting new features, but to build and release features that matter in a responsible way.

Writing pledges in the ETHOS app gets easier with every new pledge period. You’re finding your voice and start experimenting with different types of pledges, not just fire-focused ones.

Maybe you make an air pledge to make time to meet with somebody from legal to better understand their perspective and start building bridges between your areas of work. Maybe you dip your toes into the water and pledge to pause the development of new features because you don’t yet understand the impacts and harms they could have, and you realize you don’t have enough expertise to make an informed decision. Or maybe you seek grounding to earth and pledge to discover research that can help you make better decisions, explore learnings from different disciplines.

You have the freedom to experiment and think because your organization finally recognizes the value of other elements and begins to trust your instincts as a responsible firekeeper. And you watch as your ETHOS Garden grows and thrives as you balance your fire-building skills with other elements and nurture your team’s seeds in a more holistic way.

Embodying responsible firekeeping

You’ve been using the ETHOS app for almost a year now. When preparing for your next yearly review, you realize that you now see your job completely differently. 

Previously, you kept your head down, did what was asked of you, tried not to ruffle too many feathers. But you’ve noticed a change since leadership made the announcement about the responsible firekeeping pilot, almost a year ago. You were skeptical at that time. “Yet another time-wasting shiny new thing,” you thought to yourself and didn’t really pay attention to the announcement while maintaining a professional poker face on the Zoom call.

And it did indeed seem like a time-waster at first. The change didn’t happen overnight. The entire organization had to unlearn old habits and develop a new relationship with time and what it means to be wasting time because you were so used to only seeing fire-building as productive. But over time, you learned to see the value in nurturing other elements and developing responsible firekeeping skills.

You are now given a voice within the organization, an opportunity to express your concerns AND explore these concerns with your team. Rather than being dismissed and beaten into submission with “We don’t have time to talk about this,” you are afforded the opportunity to discuss whatever this is with your teammates. Curiosity and asking tough questions is rewarded. Not just during the hiring process, as an abstract ideal, but in everyday practice.

In a way, agile now feels more agile because you now also have room to say no. To remove features, to think twice before rushing to write code for a feature that will never be released or that will have to be completely rewritten all over in the next quarter. Being agile no longer means just sprinting ahead, but being open to move into different directions, with ease.

You finally feel listened to as a human being. You have the opportunity to learn from your coworkers, to diversify your work, role, and contributions. You’re no longer kept in a box, and it’s not all just sprinting. Sometimes it’s sitting around the campfire and slowing down.

Not only do you deliver working software, but working together is easier because you make time to build shared understanding and develop shared responsibility. It’s not a battle between business and development anymore.

Yes, there’s still tension. But tensions are no longer ignored and buried six feet under. The entire organization now makes time to address tensions as they arise, and you end up with a healthier workplace that doesn’t leave you exhausted, but energized. Instead of constantly firefighting with the consequences of moving fast and breaking things, you now actually have time for building better products. Products that make you feel better about your work, customers feel better about their choices, and have a reduced impact on the environment.

And to think it all started with a simple Slack app…

This isn’t just about an app

I know, I know. You’re probably reading this as an agile fire-focused practitioner and think I’m just making this up. That the realities of business are too harsh to take the time to grow a thriving garden together. That responsible firekeeping might never work for you. But remember, over twenty years ago, when waterfall was the way to build software, agile seemed daring and daunting. Today, as the industry has embraced agile, it might seem we don’t need to stir sh*t up.

But when you look closely, you will notice that we practice agile in ways that are detrimental to people and the planet, and that most of us are well aware of it. And it doesn’t have to be like this. When your children ask how your work actually helps to make the world a better place instead of supporting existing inequalities, you can actually be proud to explain that you’re shifting your practice from starting fires and firefighting to responsible firekeeping.

And yes, when you start learning and practicing responsible firekeeping, it might seem slower at first, but you’ll eventually be faster – even though speed is not the goal – because you’re not constantly firefighting made up deadlines and putting out wildfires you started because you didn’t have time to discuss this or because you kept making compromises and accumulating technical and ethical debt.

Now, the Slack app I’m describing in this post isn’t quite ready yet to be installed, but we are building the fire that will help you and your organization rethink product development.

While we build our fire – in a balanced way – we’d love to share our vision of how responsible firekeeping can change the tech industry more widely. We believe change is inevitable if we allow ourselves to think different, not just when it comes to design, but to the way we do business and treat each other and the planet. 

If these words resonate with you or made you curious to learn more, we invite you to:

  • Learn how to balance your product’s fire by booking a responsible firekeeping workshop or consultation with our experienced team of responsible firekeepers.
  • Invite us onto your podcast to have a chat about responsible firekeeping as the breath of fresh air we need in product development.
  • Follow Tethix on LinkedIn as we explore diverse perspectives and research with our network to ground our understanding to the earth we all inhabit.
  • Take a sip of water and reflect on how your own day-to-day practice would change with responsible firekeeping and share your reflection with us over email.

Explore more articles

Ready to become a responsible firekeeper?

Don't let the house, city or forest burn down. Cultivate a sustainable flame by working with our team. We deliver workshops, keynotes and advisory services to companies that want to lead the way to a responsible tech future.

We only use your email to contact you. See our Privacy Policy