Sustainable pace is all about keeping positive energy flowing on your teams. It doesn’t mean taking it easy. It doesn’t mean struggling to achieve a constant pace. It means expending your energy in a positive way, on the right things, for the right amount of time. It means allowing you and your team to feel the exhilaration of completing valuable work. And it means stopping at the right time to allow that exhilaration buoy your team along so they can all reach the finish line together.
This week, I was re-reading one of my favorite books called “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” by Haruki Murakami. It’s not a book about business, agile, or lean product management. It’s actually a memoir written by an amazing novelist about running and training for marathons. And every time I read this book, I always find this passage the most interesting, especially for lean or agile teams:
“Right now I’m aiming at increasing the distance I run, so speed is less of an issue. As long as I can run a certain distance, that’s all I care about.” Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write no more. Do that, and the next day’s work goes surprisingly smoothly. I think Ernest Hemmingway did something like that. To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed – and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.”
Murakami doesn’t use the specific words, but he is describing what the lean and agile world refers to as sustainable pace. Lately, I’ve seen far too many organizations forget that sustainable pace is an important component of lean and agile systems. They push too hard, for too long and in the end sacrifice the health and well-being of their team members, and produce lower quality products. Sustainable pace allows teams and individuals to remain healthy, produce higher quality products, and to be more predictable in their output.
So, let’s break down Murakami’s quote and see if it helps us understand sustainable pace a little better.
“Right now I’m aiming at increasing the distance I run, so speed is less of an issue. As long as I can run a certain distance, that’s all I care about.” To me, this is the definition of done. My team knows the deal, knows what we have to deliver, and that we will get to done. Speed is not always the most important thing. Sometimes high quality and getting the right things done are more important than how fast something gets to market.
“Sometimes I run fast when I feel like it, but if I increase the pace I shorten the amount of time I run, the point being to let the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day. This is the same tack I find necessary when writing a novel. I stop every day right at the point where I feel I can write no more.” I don’t believe that sustainable pace means a constant pace. The Agile Manifesto states, “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.” I think sustainable pace needs to allow for the natural flow and ebb of energy through a team and through individuals. As Christoph Baudson describes it, sustainable pace means that work should happen dynamically by expending energy and then restoring it by the use of rituals. Stop and slow down at the right times so you and your teams can experience the exhilaration of the work they have done and let that carry on to the next day, sprint, or release.
“To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow.” While I don’t believe sustainable pace equals constant pace, I think it does imply a natural rhythm. If we are running a marathon, we can’t continuously run record setting sub-4 minute miles. It’s not a rhythm anyone could keep for 26.2 miles. You’ll bonk after a mile or two and never complete the race. But how do you know what pace you should run to complete a marathon? Or, how do you and your team know what the correct pace is to complete a project and remain healthy and happy? It’s trial and error. Try a pace that your team agrees to. Run a sprint or two. Do a retrospective. Were we running too fast? Too slow? Just right? Ask the questions, get the answers, and adjust your pace until it feels right for everyone.
“The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed – and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.” Getting to a predictable pace is not easy. It takes a lot of effort. And it depends heavily on complexity. In terms of running, it depends on the terrain you are covering. Most road races are relatively flat, on pavement, with fairly predictable conditions. I know that when I run a road marathon I can run at a fairly fast pace. However, I also race a good deal of off-road trail marathons, and the pace I maintain in those races is significantly slower. Trail races throw a variety of conditions at you that can change dynamically…uphill, downhill, rolling, steep, rocky, sandy, wet, muddy…you name it, it’s out there. It takes a lot more effort and concentration to find a sustainable pace on the trail than it does on the roads. In the same way, it will probably take less effort for you and your team to get to a sustainable pace on less complex work than it will on more complex work.
So remember to expend only the right amounts of energy to get the right things done. Slow down or stop from time to time to allow your teams to restore that energy and enjoy the exhilaration of completing valuable work. Experiment with a variety of paces until your team finds a natural rhythm that works for them. And know that your pace does not need to be constant. Allow it to ebb and flow depending on the terrain of complexity. Run your teams at a sustainable pace and I promise you’ll not only reach the finish line, but you’ll feel great on the entire journey.