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Ultimately, we are seeking a better understanding of what it means to be human. In this quest, progress is not made by finding the “right” answers, but by asking meaningful questions.

– Terry Winograd, Fernando Flores, “Understanding Computers and Cognition” [1]

Developing Sustainable Products with SAFe


Note: This article is part of Extended SAFe Guidance and represents official SAFe content that cannot be accessed directly from the Big Picture.


Introduction

In today’s world, customer, investor, government, and employee demands drive companies to carefully consider their products’ economic, social, and environmental impacts. As a result, the ability to develop sustainable products is becoming a top priority. Consumers are increasingly eco-conscious, gravitating toward brands that prioritize sustainability. This focus aligns well with the Lean-Agile practices described in SAFe, which emphasize iterative innovation, reduction of waste, and customer-centricity.

This article provides strategies for incorporating sustainability into Agile product development and applying systems thinking to the entire product life cycle.

Defining Sustainable Products

The term ‘sustainable’ is not new to Product Management. In SAFe it is used to recognize that products must evolve to meet changing customer and market needs throughout the product lifecycle. It is one of four fundamental properties of every solution:

  • Desirable – Do customers and end-users want the solution?
  • Feasible – Can we deliver the right solution through a combination of build, buy, partner, or acquire activities?
  • Viable – Does the solution create more value than cost?
  • Sustainable Are we proactively managing our solution to account for its expected product-market lifecycle?

Sustainability has now taken on additional meaning. In today’s context, sustainable products also deliver tangible economic, social, and environmental benefits throughout the product lifecycle.

image with three icons aligned horizontally. Economic Sustainability with a green sprout growing out of a stack of coins. Social Sustainability with two branches creating a circle with three people inside it with big happy hearts. Environmental sustainability with data servers and a plug with a leaf at the end of the cord
Figure 1. The three dimensions of a sustainable product

These three dimensions of sustainability are described below. Depending on priorities, values, solution contexts, and desired outcomes, organizations and products may emphasize them differently.

Economic Sustainability

Economic Sustainability with a green sprout growing out of a stack of coins.

Economic sustainability refers to products that are intentionally designed to be long-lasting, reusable, and can be recycled. These products are fit for purpose, designed to last, and promote the reuse of materials, reducing the need for costly replacement. This can be achieved through durable construction, timeless design, and ease of repair. Products designed for durability and modularity require fewer replacements and provide the potential for generating new revenue streams with repair, recycling, and upgrade services.

Additionally, products designed to be reusable and recyclable become part of a circular economy, where they are repurposed at the end of their useful life. This closed-loop system reduces the need for new raw materials, minimizes waste, and improves profitability. Similarly, waste and resource usage regulations are becoming stricter in many regional markets, which means penalty and fee avoidance are important factors in product development.

Social Sustainability

Social Sustainability with two branches creating a circle with three people inside it with big happy hearts.

A socially sustainable product prioritizes the well-being and rights of workers and the affected communities and aims to bring benefits to society. For example, protecting fair wages, promoting safe working conditions, and respecting local customs are all examples of social sustainability.

Additionally, social sustainability puts a renewed focus on the need to design customer-centric products and the use of personas throughout the product development process. Considerations for skill development, local community initiatives and norms, and job development are key areas for positive impact. Enterprises that deliver socially sustainable products build more consumer trust, willingness to pay, and stickiness than their competitors.

Environmental Sustainability

Environmental sustainability with data servers and a plug with a leaf at the end of the cord

An environmentally sustainable product minimizes negative impacts on the planet and its natural resources throughout its lifecycle. This includes factors such as energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and pollution. 

This applies to physical and intangible products alike. Software applications, for example, impact the environment through electricity consumption. In fact, Internet use accounted for 3.7% of global greenhouse emissions in recent years. This figure is expected to double by 2025, with the potential for even higher growth rates considering the rapid growth of AI applications, which require massive amounts of computing power.

Enabling a Circular Economy as a Product Leader

Opportunities to improve sustainability often arise from a product’s broader value chain. Some organizations focus on improving sustainability in specific stages, such as design and development. Others strive for an entirely circular economy, building sustainability and minimizing waste throughout a product’s lifecycle. Product Management plays a key role in enabling circular economies to meet the needs of customers and stakeholders.

So, what is meant by a circular economy? In economics, circularity means a product, service, or resource is renewed or regenerated rather than wasted. Circularity is a key concept that should be integrated into product design to ensure that all aspects are considered, such as energy consumption during manufacturing, transportation, and end-of-life scenarios. Sustainable end-of-use and reuse strategies can be achieved by engineering materials that are easily recyclable or can be utilized for new development. Knowing how long materials will last also helps businesses make intelligent pricing decisions and retain consumers.

Furthermore, Product Managers influence consumer behaviors for product use and reuse in multiple aspects of the product lifecycle, including marketing plans and operational deployment ideation. Engineering plays an important role in designing products that can be easily disassembled and repurposed [4].

It is important to identify how a circular economy applies to a specific product context so that the product can be designed to keep materials in constant circulation. Figure 2 shows an example of this concept applied to a Data Center for Large Language Models.

Image showing the circular economy for large language models and big data centers. On the left side there are eight icons inside circles that represent server farm design, raw materials, manufacturing, cooling systems, energy sources, refurbishment and repair, end of life and recycling facility. All those eight elements combine to provide - increased economic value, minimuzed negative environmental impact and increased social responsibility shown on the right side with three icons and three check marks.
Figure 2. Example of circular economy considerations for Large Language Models and Big Data centers

AI Large Language Models are revolutionizing various sectors, but their data centers can have significant environmental impacts. Steps to creating a sustainable circular economy for AI data center products could involve:

  • Powering the data center with renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, or geothermal.
  • Identifying green alternatives to single-use materials for the server farms and the construction. Innovative materials use industrial food waste or algae blooms to produce bio-plastics and composites using our current abundant resources.
  • Utilizing energy-efficient components for servers, cooling systems, and storage. Then, dynamically allocating energy-consuming resources based on real-time needs.
  • Implementing evaporative cooling, rainwater harvesting, and greywater reuse to reduce freshwater needs for energy and cooling further.
  • Capturing the generated waste heat and sending it to nearby buildings or district heating systems.
  • Designing the data center for disassembly and reuse of material components. Using materials that can be composted back into fertilizer.

Practices for Developing Sustainable Products

The practices and considerations described below are useful in identifying ways to improve sustainability. Product Managers must also consider additional approaches to cater to their specific needs and desired outcomes in alignment with their organization’s strategy and values.

Fostering Innovative Sustainability with Design Thinking

SAFe recognizes design thinking as a critical dimension of the core competency of Agile product delivery. To ensure sustainability throughout the entire lifecycle of a product, design thinking should be utilized. The double diamond model illustrates the iterative phases of divergent and convergent thinking, explained further in the design thinking SAFe Framework article.

The first diamond involves identifying areas of need in the target market(s) and considering opportunities to address sustainability concerns with current and future products. The second diamond focuses on ideating and prototyping solutions that address previously identified challenges and opportunities. These are useful opportunities for Product Management to understand market and user needs and to design and test solution opportunities iteratively.

image showing 4 design thinking cycles. Four cycles growing upwards. Economic, social and environmental sustainability are all taken into consideration for each cycle. Those icons are at the top of the image.
Figure 3.  Advancing the sustainable product over the market lifecycle with Design Thinking

As seen in Figure 3, applying design thinking throughout the product lifecycle offers multiple opportunities to evaluate and improve a product’s sustainability. This ability is critical to the research and hypotheses testing required to address all three dimensions of a sustainable product.

Developing sustainable products involves continually testing design aspects such as eco-friendly materials, usability, and recyclability. These testing practices reflect the full product lifecycle, focusing on creating more positive and longer-term economic, social, and environmental outcomes.

Gemba at All Points of the Product Lifecycle

Gemba is a Lean term and practice from Japan, meaning ‘the real place,’ where the customers’ work is performed. In addition to spending time with customers using their products, product leaders should also spend time observing each step in the development process. Gemba identifies opportunities to eliminate waste or better serve consumers that can be prioritized and acted upon.

Identify target market populations, including the needs of underserved populations. Ask users how and why they are making purchasing decisions. Watch how the products are used, taking specific notes on how they are used unexpectedly. Consider user needs for product solutions that promote sustainability, like energy-saving modes or data-efficient operation. Understand the current customer usage or problem set in the context of reusability and product lifetime. Observe how products are being disposed of and if there is access to the disposal methods hoped for.

Recognize the Critical Role of Solution Context in Developing Sustainable Products

Solution Context identifies the critical aspects of the environment in which a product or solution operates (Figure 4). Understanding the solution context is crucial to value delivery. It provides an essential understanding of the solution’s requirements, usage, installation, operation, and support. The solution context impacts all elements of solution development, including solution intent and design, non-functional requirements (NFRs), development priorities, solution implementation and testing, supplier and material selection, release governance, and innovation.

Figure 4. Solution Context

Understanding the solution context also helps identify opportunities to create more sustainable products.

Interoperability: Products can contain complex networks of interdependencies that must be managed carefully. These connections also create great opportunities for creating connected and innovative sustainable solutions. Designing products that can seamlessly interoperate with related systems avoids generating unnecessary or duplicate components and adapters that consume additional energy and materials.

Maintenance, Operational Support, and Sustainable Infrastructure: A focus on sustainable infrastructure, as well as how the product will be maintained in the operational context, allows for easier upgrades and repairs and extends a product’s usable life, which reduces economic and environmental waste. It also creates more opportunities for employment through easily managed and operated repair and recycling systems.

Standards and Regulations: Product leaders with a good grasp of sustainability regulations, standards, and customer needs can avoid fees and penalties. Furthermore, they can identify areas where innovative solutions that meet and exceed regulations can be built. This can be the deciding factor between a generic product and a whole-product solution that is differentiated from the competition.

All aspects of the solution’s context contain unknowns that can be revealed by exploring the solution in its intended operating environment. For more information on the solution context, read the related SAFe Framework article.

Apply Empathy Techniques to Identify Sustainable Concerns Important to Customers

It is important to clearly identify the product’s purpose in the target customers’ eyes by creating personas and empathy maps and identifying jobs to be done. Product Management should spend time with customers to understand their sustainability concerns. Empathy maps are a particularly powerful way to uncover trends in customers’ attitudes that can easily go unnoticed.

Market and community perspectives on sustainable considerations change rapidly and vary across regions and cultures. Not only creating but maintaining and updating persons is key to creating the right innovation for the right market at the right moment.

Use Journey Maps to Highlight Opportunities for Improving Sustainability

A customer journey map illustrates the user experience through their products and services. Customer journey maps allow teams to identify ways products can be improved to create a better end-to-end user experience. Journey maps are useful for revealing sustainable practices and new opportunities along the user interaction touchpoints. Figure 5 shows an example of a young couple purchasing groceries and highlights opportunities for improving the sustainability of the product at each step. Product Management and researchers can use them to foster development opportunities for reuse, ways to educate users on available sustainable options, and more.

customer journey map. Young couple trying to decide where to buy groceries. Table with 5 columns. Column one is decide. Column two is learn. column three is choose. column four is purchase. column five is complete.
Figure 5. Example: Customer Journey Map highlighting opportunities to improve product sustainability

Product Management should create journey maps representing the full life cycle of the product. Teams should then brainstorm solutions that address user needs while minimizing environmental impact and fostering long-term economic value. Where applicable, features and stories should include details around accessibility and inclusivity of key end-user personas, community feedback from under-represented end users, and user path tests through the functionality being built. These activities should consider the environment the product will most likely be used within and what changes the product will have on those using, supporting, buying, and disposing of the product.

Developing and Testing Sustainable Products

A focus on sustainability naturally overlaps with the definition of Non-Functional Requirements (NFRs) for a product. Common NFRs related to sustainability include accessibility, scalability, profitability, interoperability, and privacy. For example, performance-based NFRs can reduce CO2 for web-based applications. The faster customers can achieve their goal with a product, the less total energy will be consumed. These NFRs should be clearly defined, and the product should be regularly tested to ensure each new feature adheres to them. For more information on Non-Functional Requirements (NFRs), read the related SAFe Framework article.

While developing sustainable products, their social, economic, and environmental impact should be measured. The ongoing impact should also be assessed regularly throughout the product life-cycle, from material sourcing to disposal and as new functionality is added. For example, A/B testing can be used to compare the impact of different product versions simultaneously.

Summary

A focus on developing sustainable products is more crucial now than ever, driven by increasing expectations from consumers, investors, governments, and employees. By integrating sustainability into core Agile Product Development practices and aligning with Lean-Agile methods, organizations can bring focus to reducing waste and improving customer-centricity.

This approach also paves the way for a more sustainable future. Through durable, reusable, and recyclable product designs, products aim for economic sustainability. By prioritizing the well-being of workers and communities, products strive for social sustainability. By reducing our ecological footprint, products deliver environmental sustainability benefits. This not only helps organizations adhere to regulations and satisfy consumer demands but also builds trust, encourages loyalty, and supports the organization’s reputation for the long term.


Learn More

[1] Winograd and Flores. Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Addison Wesley. 1987.

[2] New Data Reveals Consumers Increasingly Choose Products in Sustainable Packaging Globally, Despite Rising Prices. Date Written: April 25, 2023. Retrieved on April 22, 2024. https://foodindustryexecutive.com/2023/04/new-data-reveals-consumers-increasingly-choose-products-in-sustainable-packaging-globally-despite-rising-prices/

[3] Consumer Demand for Fair Labor Standards: Evidence from a Field Experiment on eBay. Date Written: April 12, 2011. Retrieved on April 24, 2024. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1811788

[4] 5 New Sustainable Design Materials. Retrieved April 23, 2024. https://luxiders.com/new-sustainable-design-materials/

[5] Stories That Deliver Business Insights. Date Written: December 19, 2013. Retrieved on March 22, 2024. https://sloanreview.mit.edu/article/stories-that-deliver-business-insights/

Last Update: 10 May 2024