PM Articles > Geof Lory > Speed Kills

Speed Kills

by Geof Lory

In the last ten to fifteen years, I don't know if I have worked for a company where schedule hasn't been the primary driver on the project. There is a lot of talk about staying under budget, but in reality few companies track their project spend at a level where monitoring project costs can be proactively useful or even known. Quality seems to get the same level of attention and is not really taken seriously until it dips to a dangerous level. And scope, well, when is enough, enough and who really can say no?

I find that the schedule is often self-imposed by an owner or senior manager who feels that if he/she doesn't create the sense of urgency things will just not get done. Their thought is that without the overt pressure of the schedule, people will just sit around in meetings and ruminate or spend time surfing the Net for the latest scoop on some celebrity. While I believe that having a goal which includes a timeframe, random application of inexplicable schedule pressure with the associated need for speed, may not always get the intended results. Speed can be good. Speed gets things done, sometimes. Speed also has prerequisites. Ignore them and speed can kill.

On projects and in my role as a project manager, my impatience and sense of urgency can be an energizing factor for the team. It can also increase the project risks and bring on unwanted consequences. Understanding the requirements for putting the team's collective pedal to the metal can help you leverage valuable energy while avoiding the potential risks and negative consequences of pushing a team that is not yet ready for speed. Maintaining this fine balance requires continuous testing to assess speed readiness. But with a little forewarning of the factors needed before you up the RPMs, you can avoid the inadvertent and undesirable crash and burn.

Speed accentuates imperfections. It will put the mechanics of your team under the microscope. Every rough edge or bad seam has the potential to cause friction and instability that can be detrimental. Speed will naturally apply increased pressure and reveal weaknesses. Additionally, sudden speed can be a jolt to the system as it works to overcome the natural inertia of the status quo. Just expecting or wishing for speed will not affect this inertia. A steady increase in velocity (acceleration) with continual examination of the impact to the team will be more effective and less risky, especially if you know what to look for as you accelerate.

This series of articles will explore the factors that can impact a team's readiness for speed. We'll begin the readiness journey with the ability to maintain a sustainable pace of production. Future articles will continue with other factors, including environment, purpose, team cognition, enabling tools, and more. The series will wrap up with a readiness assessment tool/checklist that will help you gauge the probability of speed success -- or at least advise on areas to smooth for speed.

Factor #1: Focus on Sustainable Pace of Production

Stepping on the gas will almost invariably produce activity, but activity should never be mistaken for progress. Progress is what comes out of the end of the pipe; activity is what happens inside the pipe. If the goal is to get the most out of the pipe with the least activity in the shortest timeframe, (the art of maximizing the work not done) we have to think less about action and more about sustainable production or throughput.

Years ago I worked for the owner of a software company who could not stand to see anyone idle. He believed that if everyone was working at a feverish pace, good things would just happen. Unfortunately, his focus on activity rather than production created more confusion than progress as people bumped into each other, duplicated work and created quality issues all in the interest of speed. Everyone was busy, but less and less was coming out of the end of the pipe. He missed the boat on the first speed readiness factor by measuring and rewarding activity instead of production.

As his company grew and the methods of production got more complicated and interdependent, pure activity without focus and direction created chaos and frustration. Failure to focus on production at a sustainable pace resulted in "repair service" behaviors that looked productive but were merely heroic attempts to fix the problems created by their earlier frenetic efforts. Eventually, his employees and clients both felt the impact. Crash and burn. His annual revenues are the same today as five years ago.

Continuous high speed is not sustainable. There is a reason the volume dial can be changed from low to high (and there isn't really an 11 on the dial). The same is true with teams. High speed demands such intense focus and such a high state of readiness that your mind and body are continuously taxed. It may be exhilarating for a period of time, but it also drains your emotional and physical reserves. In projects, there are times when it is necessary to step on the gas and get things done to meet a deadline. But that activity takes a toll on the team, which eventually hurts sustained production.

Speed is not so much the villain here as is urgency. Urgency creates a singularity of focus in the moment. Creating a sense of urgency can be used effectively to overcome roadblocks or to reach a short-term, hopefully well-defined goal. But the focus required shuts down our ability to see beyond the moment. As your speed increases, things come at you faster. To deal with this, your vision naturally becomes narrower and more myopic. So if you want to move at high speed, everyone needs a common understanding of where you're headed and what lies directly in front of you. On projects, these are short-term goals or deliverables. Making sure these are positive, specific, clear, simple and explicit will provide the team with the comfort that they can speed up because they know what lies ahead.

In agile, this is enabled through the use of iterations or sprints. Establishing a set of clear, specific and unchanging work the team can commit to and the customer/product owner can expect (the sprint backlog) provides the clarity that can enable sustainable production. Setting the pace that optimizes production (team velocity) is essential to the sustainable pace of the sprints and setting production expectations.

Sprints also buffer the team from the "tyranny of the urgent" that encourages the false-heroics that interrupt sustainable production. To maintain a rhythm of production it is critical to avoid continual stops and starts. Removing interference from these outside agencies, often called impediments, helps maintain the steady flow. Unfortunately, most projects aren't a series of sprints, but rather a marathon attempted at the pace of a sprint. You don't have to be a runner to know that just doesn't work.

Sustainable pace and speed should not be confused with the story of the tortoise and the hare. This isn't about slowing down; it is about speeding up effectively. You can achieve fast and steady, but only if your team is ready for speed. Maintaining a focus on a sustainable pace of production is a first step to set the foundation for sustainable speed. Evidence of sustainable pace is measured in throughput. Impediments to throughput are in the pipe itself, the environment.

In the next article we'll look at environmental factors (the narrow spots and rough edges in the pipe) that can limit the potential speed if they are not opened up, smoothed out and optimized. We'll also begin creating the assessment tool by identifying specific items in the environment to consider, assess and measure to determine the team readiness for an increased pace of production.

(A previous version of this column appeared in 2010 under the title "Are You Ready for Speed?")

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Geof Lory:

"Haste Makes Waste" slogan has been repeated to next generation. As you stated your article, it is as true today. When I started my graduate program, only scope, time and cost were considered parameters to judge the success of a project. When I graduate, Quality is coming to the forefront.

Thanks for reprinting this article for those who missed it the first time.

Great article, thanks

Good article! I'll be looking into the series. This initial read brings a few thoughts to mind. The leader that's expecting the results often doesn't have all the data. If they don't want to talk thru the risks that's an indicator in itself. Assuming they're open to discussion, any tips on managing leadership expectations thru reporting or other methods?

I'll dig into the follow-on articles but welcome input from fellow readers as well.


Great article, thank you! I am looking forward to others in this series.

Leaders and managers often insist on a delivery date without knowing or seeking to understand project constraints and processes. How can we create an environment or situation where they are encouraged and want to know and understand these constraints? How do we educate them about these without offending them? Delivery is important but as you say, method of delivery, especially how we treat our team and the quality delivered is muy imporante!

Excellent article, can't wait for the next article published.

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