Agile Transformation: Sustainable Pace

When reading literature about Agile or talking to practitioners we often hear the term “sustainable pace.” Anyone who is overworked might think two things: Sustainable pace sounds wonderful and impossible. Upon discussing the term, many people struggle with believing that the required work could be accomplished under this constraint. Some think that software creation and sustainable pace are mutually exclusive.

A cycling team keeps sustainable pace

Image (CC) by muffinn on Flickr

A long-distance cycling team cannot run as fast as physically possible for the whole race. An organization also cannot continuously drive output as fast as possible and expect to remain viable. Pushing harder and harder for output actually damages the ability to get the needed outcomes.

Sustainable Pace Origins

The Agile Manifesto has several ideas that support the idea of sustainable pace. One of the twelve principles states:

Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

In Extreme Programming practices the idea of “Sustainable, Measurable, Predictable Pace” is also highlighted.

Positive Attributes of Sustainable Pace

Let’s briefly address the reasons for sustainable pace that are so obvious that we tend to ignore them.

  • Prevents burnout which helps in turnover prevention.
  • Lowering stress has many benefits from increased health, improved state of mind and less absenteeism.
  • Working long hours for more than a week or two leads to less productivity than working fewer hours.
  • Working at a pace that is too high results in decreased quality and more mistakes.

Agile Transformation and Sustainable Pace

As a company transforms to a more agile way of working and move towards sustainable pace, many fear that less work will get done despite the bullet points mentioned above.Here are some additional benefits of working at a sustainable pace.

Sometimes forcing our work pace to slow down despite heavy work loads can reveal places for larger improvements. For example, if we remove the option to work long hours, we have more incentive to improve effectiveness in other ways (continuous integration, automated testing, skill building, clear communication, etc.). If we always just work three days of 12 hours each at the end of every sprint, or several weeks of overtime to finish a release, we are masking places we could improve. Improvements that pay benefits every day of the future.

Sustainable pace also helps focus on empirical data for planning, which brings predictability. The customer or business reasonably wants to understand when some parts of the product will be ready. Injecting periods of long hours into our work stream increases the variability in our system, drastically decreasing our ability to know our own true capabilities. If the team is working at a sustainable pace, the amount of finished work they can deliver in a given period of time is fairly predictable. There will be ups and downs because of life, especially at the individual team member level. But the team as a whole, over the course of some time working together, will have a fairly stable amount of work completed each time box.

Some people, including myself, work better under some amount of urgency. I think of a sense of urgency as “positive” stress. Positive desire and motivation best comes from the fact that the team is engaged in the work. When the work has obvious value, when the team, sponsors and customers are working together to build the future. Always doing the most important and valuable work available provides a sense of accomplishment can be addictive and motivating!

Your Sustainable Pace

A 40 hour work week is arbitrary, though it may be expected or mandated by law. For some individuals it is more time than they can be highly productive and others will want to do more than that. The team needs to find their balance. Worrying too much about filling 40 hours or not going over is worrying too much about cost. Work on maximizing value produced and the hours spent won’t matter so much. A team that is five times more effective could work 30 hours a week and still be producing more value than before they became Agile!

Instead of expecting to work 10+ hours per day, spend some time looking at what you can improve to get even more work done at a sustainable pace. 


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