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Sustainable Pace, How to Achieve and Improve it?

by Ben Linders on Aug 15, 2013 |

Being one of the principles of the agile manifesto, sustainable pace is considered important by many to deploy agile in organizations. But achieving a sustainable pace can be difficult, often due to the way that teams are managed and the culture in organizations. And when teams are asked to improve their velocity, how can they improve their pace and reach a new level which they can sustain?

Christoph Baudson made a webpage on what is sustainable pace. He starts by describing the origins of and concepts behind sustainable pace, and refers to the principle from the agile manifesto, which in his opinion is “the most widely accepted definition”:

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

He explains why is working at a sustainable pace is important:

What happens if software development occurs during overtime? Several studies show a productivity boost in the first week of overtime, with productivity decreasing rapidly and ultimately falling below the productivity level of the 40 hour standard. During overtime, people fail to notice a drop in their cognitive abilities, resulting in mistakes and finally quality degradation.

Sustainable Pace is not about taking it easy and going slow. It's just the opposite, you should expend energy vigourously, and regain strength by resting. In the long run, make sure you invest your energy wisely, and set your priorities taking into account the findings of happiness research.

Earlier InfoQ covered sustainable pace in does sustainable pace mean a 40 hour week? and sustainable pace – what’s it mean and how to achieve it?

In the blog post sustainable pace – the fastest way to deliver software, Neil Killick uses an example to show why working at a sustainable pace is important. He describes the impact of increasing the number of user stories that a team has to finish in a sprint:

The more stories we ask the team to deliver, the less time they can spend on quality, the more likely shortcuts will be taken, the more likely technical debt will be incurred, the more likely team culture and effectiveness will suffer, the less fun will be had, the more fried the team’s brains will be and the less predictable we will become at delivering software.

Measuring the velocity of teams with the purpose of increasing it can hamper the sustainable pace in which a team works, as Steve Ropa explains in reject the tyranny of metrics:

I have seen many team talk about how to improve velocity.  The end result is always the same.  They come up with some target velocity, or worse a target rate of acceleration.  The logical conclusion of this is also just as predictable.  First, teams  become paralyzed by the need to make sure their estimates are exactly right, since there will be no wiggle room if they get one wrong.  Next, they start estimating everything much higher, in order to allow themselves wiggle room if something goes wrong.  Neither of these behaviors lets us establish a sustainable pace nor does it live up to the Agile Manifesto value of Individuals and Interactions over Processes and Tools.

Derek Huether wrote a lesson in process improvement, where he talks about the need to know how you do your work before trying to become faster:

One major mistake I see time and time again are organizations trying to do things faster before really understanding their own processes.  If you don’t stop and really ask yourself if you’ve optimized the whole of your processes, before trying to go faster, any successes will be short lived.  I can assure you that speed without optimization is not sustainable.

Avienaash Shiralige write in sustainable pace: Does culture play any role at all?

Sustainable pace is not a marathon, but a series of short sprints, where you pause, re-energise yourself, reflect and start new. So definitely you need a slack within the sprint to achieve this.

Shiralige refers to research from Geert Hofstede on culture. One of the parameters that Geert has measured is the power distance index: “the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally”. In countries where the power distance index is high, it may be difficult to implement sustainable pace:

Building an organisation which questions, challenges ideas, shares thoughts openly which eventually helps to build self-organising teams, with absolutely no hierarchical mindset is immensely tough – more so – as it’s a constant struggle against our own culture/mind-set.

Although culture can be a difficult thing to change as Shiralige mentions, we cannot ignore it:

Unless we address cultural issues of the organisation you can not achieve agility.

What did you do to adopt sustainable pace with your team? And how did you improve the speed in which your team delivers, and establish a new sustainable level?

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