Establishing a Sustainable Pace

July 30, 2014 Ben Linders

Guest post by Ben Linders, Netherlands-based senior consultant, InfoQ editor and blogger

Agile promotes that teams work in a sustainable pace to be able to keep delivering value to their customers. When agile teams are working under too much pressure, technical debt increases and the velocity and productivity of teams goes down. Agile retrospectives can help you to discover the causes of pressure and take actions to establish a sustainable and healthy pace with your teams.

A sustainable pace is a workload which a team can handle for a longer period, without compromising the quality of the product. It is based on a velocity that is doable for the team and doesn’t lead to stress or illness of the team members. Organizations can deploy agile processes that give teams flexibility to self-organize their work to manage their workload and flow.

When the workload of the team becomes too high, chances are high that team members will make more mistakes with increased technical debt as an result. Team pressure drives code quality down and increases maintenance. Due to the technical debt, the velocity of the team will decrease so they will actually be delivering less value to their customers while putting in more hours. Clearly a waste of valuable time, money, and energy of your people.

Finding the causes of team pressure

Some pressure is acceptable, but if you have the feeling that you are always working under pressure,the pressure is hampering your teams to deliver value to your customers, and the low quality of your products is costing you money, then that is something that should be addressed.

You can do that for instance with valuable agile retrospectives, by using exercises where team members state how they feel things are going. Facilitators can ask questions to discover what can be done to reduce the pressure. A retrospective can also be used to find the root causes of team members feeling constant pressure. You can do a five times why exercise to investigate the deeper causes of pressure.

How do you find out if teams are under pressure and what causes it? Here are some things coaches can focus upon in retrospectives, daily stand-ups, or in mentoring and coaching sessions:

  • Do teams get enough freedom to do the work in the way they think it should be done?
  • Are team members allowed to fail or make mistakes? Is it ok to learn from them?
  • Is it just 1-2 people who are under pressure, or is it everybody on the team?
  • How is the morale of your teams?  What’s the atmosphere at work, and how do people react to each other?
  • Do team members feel happy when they come to work, and when they go home?

Once you’ve identified that teams are under pressure and have learned what causes it, then they can take actions to address it in a next iteration.

Establishing sustainable pace

If a large workload is causing too much pressure and hampering teams, then they should take action.

Possible actions that they can take are:

  • Commit to a lower number of user stories in the planning game. Build in slack.
  • Investigate which improvements they can make to increase team velocity.
  • Establish stable teams that are capable of delivering quality and maintaining high productivity.
  • Prevent multitasking/task switching as much as possible.
  • Monitor work in progress; use Lean and Kanban to steer on flow instead of working more hours.
  • Plan time for team members to relax and blow off steam after having had a busy period.
  • Focus upon happiness in your teams; make sure team members have fun while doing their work.

It’s important to follow up on the actions to verify that the pressure decreases so that teams can work in a sustainable pace. An effective way to do this is by doing short-cycled improvements: Observe how the team is doing in their daily work. Use opportunities to change the way of working to improve in small steps. And turn that into a new way of working for the team.

Collaborate with your stakeholders

It may be good for teams to involve their stakeholders to find workable solutions to reduce the pressure and find a sustainable pace that delivers value to them. Teams may have the opinion that stakeholders are causing pressure, which indeed can be the case. But often stakeholders are not aware that they are putting teams under too much pressure. Teams should discuss it with them, make them aware, and together look for solutions to decrease the pressure.

Building trust is important: The stakeholders should trust the teams by assuming that they will do the best they can, and the teams should secure this trust by continuously delivering valuable products. In the longer run, both the teams and the stakeholders will benefit from a sustainable pace by getting more value.

Sustainable improvement

“If you want to deliver more, you should not work harder, but smarter” is a basic thing that didn’t change when agile was coined. Self-assessing how agile you are and doing smaller changes that stick using feedback and learning cycles from agile methods like Scrum are effective ways to implement lasting improvements. You need to invest time and energy, but when properly done, it certainly pays back. It helps you to stop death marches and to work in a sustainable pace.



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