PM Articles > Kent McDonald > Keeping Up the Pace

Keeping Up the Pace

In this column, I try to cite my actual experiences whenever I can. But in this case, I am unable to do that because I never have, and have no desire to, run a marathon. I have a great deal of respect for people that do run marathons, but the idea of crossing 26 miles by foot when other transportation options exist does not appeal to me. That being said, running a marathon is somewhat analogous to working on a project. In both cases, you are involved with an endeavor where you will be focused on a particular goal for a relatively long time. Both activities have twists and turns, uphill climbs and the occasional downhill coasts, and both activities require you to take good care of yourself so that you don't collapse before you reach your goal. One way that marathon runners take care of themselves is to maintain a relatively consistent pace throughout the race. Some project teams follow a similar practice for pacing their work, known in one of the agile software development methods as "sustainable pace."

Teams working at a sustainable pace should be able to sustain that pace indefinitely and continue to make an appropriate amount of progress without inviting burnout. Members of the team should be able to stay focused while at work and not get too worn down—occasionally working overtime when it is needed, but only in short durations.

Sounds great, but cramming in a bunch of overtime near the end of a project has seemed to work in the past. Plus it is a badge of honor, especially in the development world. We wouldn't want to give up that, would we? OK, I am being a little facetious, but extensive use of overtime has been an industry staple for dealing with short schedules and too much work. The problem is, that approach is not very sustainable. Members of the team are productive for a while, but they quickly lose their effectiveness as the day wears on. Spending extra hours at work impacts their home life, which adds stress, which impacts their effectiveness. Because they have to work late almost every night, they start popping out during the day to run errands they normally would have done before or after work. All of these things contribute to a drop in efficiency, which leads to getting further behind, which leads to the need for more overtime. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that causes a host of insidious problems on the project.

Teams that adopt a sustainable pace avoid these issues by working steadily toward their goal, while at the same time leaving sufficient time for the members to get away from work and recharge. Whenever possible, they do their work during the day when the team members are the most effective, and instead of extending the day into the unproductive time, they are more willing to pick things up the next day when they are able to focus and concentrate. That of course assumes that the team members don’t do a great deal of energy wasting activities outside of work.

So how do you implement sustainable pace with your team without sacrificing the goals of the project? The practice of sustainable pace is tied closely to the practices of time-boxed short iterations and frequent, reasonable, and feasible estimating.

Project teams often fall into the trap of excessive overtime because they suddenly come to the realization that they will not meet the schedule. Usually this realization comes quite late, and they find themselves in the situation of not being able (or willing) to ask for a later date or a reduction in expected scope. In some cases, they do both those things and realize that they are still in a world of hurt.

By using short, time-boxed iterations with actual delivery at the end of each iteration, teams can quickly gauge how they are progressing and whether they have fallen behind a pace that will allow them to deliver the promised features by the promised date. If they are not heading down that path—and have the appropriate courage to address the issue as soon as it is identified—expectations can be reset to a more reasonable level. Those discussions are never easy, but they are easier the earlier they occur.

Allowing the team to determine what they can get accomplished within a specific time box is important as well. Team members will have the best insight into how long it will take to accomplish specific tasks, so providing them an opportunity to make commitments will increase their ability to meet those commitments. While there are a few people who will assume that they can get far more done than is humanly possible, a few iterations of that, followed by the painful discussions about why they are not living up to their commitments, will change what they commit to in the future.

Once the team can focus on specific items within a reasonable window, and can make commitments rather than be handed deadlines, sustainable pace is a critical element to helping the team reach those commitments. Most project activity is very relaxed at the beginning and becomes increasingly frantic as the end nears—a very unstable, and unsustainable, level of activity. If you set your time boxes to the right length, the team may have a brief ramp up period at the beginning to do their planning, followed by an extended period of focused but controlled activity, ending up with a brief decompression period at the end of the time box, where the team can reflect back on what they did and make adjustments. Many teams refer to this as having a nice rhythm.

We can't all go at 100% all the time, we need some time to recharge the batteries. But we don't want to lose too much time to battery recharging or else we won't reach our objectives. Sustainable pace is not an excuse to become a clock watcher. You don't want your team having a critical discussion that suddenly disbands without a resolution at 5:00 p.m. because the team had committed to having a sustainable pace. It's all about establishing a pace and rhythm for the team that allows them to meet their commitments while at the same time keeping them in good shape for the long haul.

Related Links
Sustainable Pace is a key component of the XP methodology. Establishing a sustainable pace is easier with realistic, agile-based estimates, built into an iterative, feature-based plan.

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

Nice analogy. This is a good way to think about managing the team's productivity.

Great analogy Kent. I am a marathoner, ultra-marathoner and project manager and know how true this is. One of the hardest things to do for a racer is to start slowly and conserve energy. Too much too early leaves us without energy late in the race. Early burnout seldom results in finishing a race, let alone winning one. Too often I've experienced projects that do just that, burnout the team nowhere near the end of the project.

Thanks, Kent! While I can strongly relate to your personal preference of alternative modes of transportation to cover those 26 miles (I'll admit that I have to be chased by something big to break into an actual run)...the analogy works, and works very well. Taking it further, I wonder if you have any advice to offer on something like this...a team has been running a marathon, and literally just a few steps before crossing the finish line, another 10 miles were added to the race. Any thoughts around ways to re-energize the team when there's suddenly so far left to go?

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