Agile project management leaders need to define 'sustainable pace'

It is up to Agile project management leaders to set a realistic and sustainable pace for these projects.

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One of the 12 principles of Agile project management contained in the Agile manifesto is that these processes promote

sustainable development and developers should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.

Joseph Flahiff
Joseph Flahiff

But what does the term sustainable pace mean? Like many concepts, it means different things to different people, but I have found that a good analogy for setting a sustainable pace in the software world can be found in athletics.

My brother Daniel recently began participating in triathlons, races that include running, swimming and bicycling for long distances. The Ironman triathlon that is held in Hawaii is a well-known example. The training and discipline it takes to participate amaze me. I have never seen my brother look better in his life.

Here's another type of athletics: My daughters, JoHanna and Jillian, are competitive Irish dancers. When they compete, they work very hard to instill explosive energy into their 1- to 2-minute dances. I don't think anyone would deny that my brother and daughters are all great athletes. They are quite different, however: None of them could do what the others do, because they have trained their bodies to act in a specific way. But is one type of training right and the other wrong?

Obviously the answer is no; you have probably guessed that this is not an article about sports, and are already drawing parallels to the concept of sustainable pace. Both triathletes and Irish dancers maintain a sustainable pace, but it looks different in what they do. The same holds true for two software development cultures: IT departments in enterprise organizations, and digital media agencies.

In the IT shops I have worked with, projects tend to be large and long. Normally, there's more work to do in a day than there are hours to do it, and the wait between releases can be long. Many, but not necessarily all these organizations need to think about sustainable pace as if they were in a triathlon: The race is going to be long, so pace yourself.

Consider the several projects I have done for Regence Blue Cross Blue Shield. At Regence there is always more work than there are people. Because there is so much work -- and often, legally mandated deadlines associated with it -- there is significant pressure to get the work done on time, no matter what. This translates into working long days and weekends.

As an Agile coach and leader, I had to be vigilant in protecting the Regence team from unnecessary stress. Agile project management leaders need to push back to defend their team's work-life balance. If, in an effort to speed up a project, a team works for long hours over a long period of time, it's less able to make good decisions and think creatively -- and the result, ironically, is that it can't work as efficiently. The result is defects and project delays.

On the other side of the coin are digital media agencies. In these organizations, sustainable pace is more like the pace of an Irish dance: Projects are hot, fast and vary in size; but they're often smaller than the projects done in an enterprise IT shop. When the project is done, the contract is over and the team potentially can take a breather. In an agency it's not unusual to work long hours and weekends, not because someone is forcing you to but because you are excited about the project and want to work on it. You know that although it's a hard push, it will last only a short time.

I am currently the Agile coach for Wire Stone LLC, a good example of a digital media agency. At a recent sprint planning, the team decided to work overtime to make their deadline and deliver more features than they could have without working overtime. Notice what I said: "The team decided to work overtime." No one forced them. As a team, they looked at the backlog and asked whether they could work overtime to make the timeline.

The end of the project was four weeks away, a reasonable timeline, so they did not take on a crazy amount of overtime but just what they felt was reasonable. In an agency, Agile leaders need to be open to the culture of the team and -- as long as there is a cadence of push hard, then rest -- find a different kind of sustainable pace. For this kind of organization, Agile leaders have to safeguard their team's recovery time between projects.

Personalities and cultures are different. There is no reason that one definition of sustainable pace should apply to every kind of organization or Agile project management approach. I am sure there are agencies that are more like IT shops, as I've defined them, and IT shops that are more like agencies. I use IT shops and agencies as examples of cultures that have different needs. Pay attention to the culture you are part of, and adapt your sustainable pace to the organization. When was the last time you asked your team what sustainable pace means to them? They just might surprise you with their answer.

Joseph Flahiff is president and CEO of Whitewater Projects Inc. an Agile transformation consulting firm. He has more than 15 years' experience in traditional and Agile project delivery in large-scale, complex enterprise IT organizations.

This was first published in October 2011

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