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Sustainable Pace: Trusting Your Teams

12/06/2011 by Maria Matarelli

Endless business requirements, desired features, market pressures… There is always more work that needs done. Sometimes, it may feel like endless sprints where you thought you saw the finish line, but every time you round the track they tell you there’s another lap. You dig deep and pull together the energy to continue to sprint, but again, you round the last turn and push forward toward the end and people on the sidelines are yelling “another lap, another lap” and you check to see if you can find the energy to keep going, but you can’t. You keep thinking you’ll have a break but it never ends. The sprints are seemingly endless back-to-back cycles and you see no end in sight. You need to catch your breath, you need water, you’re getting blisters… You’ve burnt out.

There comes a point when you realize that if you put down the work and go home for the day, it will still be there when you come in the next morning. Though, with pressure from stakeholders and seemingly endless pressure to deliver every two weeks, if the team is not operating at a sustainable pace, they may feel overwhelmed and lose motivation. I recall some wisdom I received from a project team I was working with a few years back where I came onboard with new energy, but not everyone could maintain the same pace long term. For those that had been working there 20-some years, they couldn’t always run; they had settled into a pace where they could last for the marathon. I was complimented on my efficiency, but warned about burning out if I didn’t find a pace that was sustainable. This was a traditional project management environment that ended up converting to Agile and the principles hold true regardless of the environment. Sustainable pace is essential to long term well being.

When planning a sprint, teams often take on more work than they can complete within that dedicated time period. I’ve done it, most all of us have. Why do we do this? Is it a superman syndrome, an eagerness to please, overestimating and forgetting to leave room for uncertainty or just blatant disregard for reality?

There seems to always be pressure to get more work done. Teams being challenged to do more, then being asked why they took on the work if they couldn’t finish it. Managers and stakeholders disappointed when they didn’t get what they thought the team was going to deliver.

When a team finds their sustainable pace, right sizes the work to deliver within a sprint and can meet the sprint goal, they can find a sense of empowerment and accomplishment. The teams will begin to set better expectations with their customers on what they are delivering. Stakeholders can count on the team to complete what they said they could because it is realistic, not just an ambitious attempt. At the root of this concept is trust. Trust that even though stakeholders are pushing for more, when the team says this is what we think we can accomplish the stakeholders listen. Providing the full thought process around what is reasonable and including the “why” can help in providing this understanding. Trust from each other within the team and trust from those around the team sets the stage for stability.

The team needs to be comfortable speaking up and pushing back; the Scrum Master needs to help shield them and Product Owner, to listen. There needs to be a safe environment for honest feedback. We still want to have dialogue on concerns, challenges for new ideas or other considerations, but the team needs the place to be heard. Trust your experts.

The defeat of carrying over work from one sprint to the next can be accompanied by frustration and stress. The sense of accomplishment of completing all the work planned within the sprint and being able to deliver can have a positive impact on the team’s morale. Becoming Agile is about a better way to work. Building a trusting, open environment, not an endless death march, sprint after sprint after sprint.

It is important to have regular communication at many levels from within the team to the external stakeholders. Product Owners need to be empowered and trusted by the stakeholders to balance the priorities with the capacity of the team, keeping stakeholders informed with frequent touch points. There is always more work on the table than can be done. Stakeholders should find more satisfaction when they know they’re going to get what the team committed to. Cramming more work into a sprint does not mean that it will get done. It just makes it harder to estimate what will be done. The sprint backlog should reflect reality, not what the stakeholders want to see. Product Owners should be able to make the call, but we need to empower them to do so.

There seems to be a common theme that arises when teams feel overwhelmed yet still trying to meet unrealistic business demands. There isn’t room to take on much else or think outside of their current focus. The teams need to be trusted and there needs to be a safe environment for them to say when requests are unrealistic. Allowing extra time can enable more creative thinking and lead to higher productivity. Achieving a sustainable pace is a step closer to an environment that fosters innovation.