Sustainable Pace – What Is It and Why Do We Care?

I just recently saw an article about an upcoming video game called Warhammer 40k: Inquisitor – Martyr that made me think about a term used in a lot of agile circles – sustainable pace. Warhammer’s launch date moved from May to June due to some technical issues. In response, the team wrote:

We promise we’ll push this extra three weeks in 90+ hours per week

Is it true that the team is committing to ninety-plus hour weeks? I suspect it’s more of a management mandate, but that’s insane for a lot of reasons. And it’s sadly endemic in the games industry, especially. Even back in 2004, the spouse of an Electronic Arts (EA) employee wrote about the horrific conditions there. So let’s break it down and discuss why a sustainable pace is so important.

Overtime Myths

Punishment of Sisyphus
Punishment of Sisyphus

For decades (centuries? millennia?), managers believe that a team working overtime can make up for lost ground on schedule. And sometimes it’s even the delivery team who believes this as well. They think some extra work – maybe a 60-hour week – will get them back on track. And that it allows them to pull off the Herculean (or – more likely – the Sisyphean) task.

It’s Simple Math

If we can do 100% productivity over 40 hours (a myth in itself), why not get 150% out of a 60? Or, in the case of the Warhammer 40k game, why not 225% out of a 90-hour week? The problem lies in two different areas. One is that productivity isn’t linear. You don’t get 150% productivity out of a 60-hour week.

The construction industry examined this and found that gains in productivity drop off as you add more work time, whether it’s more work days or more working hours. There is a cost in working more than regular hours. But even then, those small gains are only for those first few weeks. As time goes on, productivity continues to decline. The gains experienced in those first few weeks eventually go away and the team – now working overtime – is performing no better than they did with no overtime. And now you’re paying more for the same amount of productivity. And better yet – that productivity will continue to drop. No wonder we refer to these crunch times as death marches.

Does any part of that sound like a solid business practice?

Except It Isn’t Simple Math

Several studies over the centuries (yes, centuries) have shown that overtime is a bad idea. Sidney Chapman wrote – in 1909 – that productivity over time decreases. Henry Ford reduced his workers’ hours from twelve to eight and days from six to five – because of this kind of analysis. And Dr. Ernst Abbe (in the 1800s!) found the same thing in German factories. The science is straightforward: a solid workday and time off to recuperate is critical to worker productivity.


Chapman's Productivity Curve
Chapman’s Productivity Curve

And the more productivity we demand, the faster that decline occurs. And, even worse, the time required to recover from a stint of overtime takes longer than was expended in the overtime. What I mean by that is the following. Let’s say you work four weeks at 60 hours per week. You then decide that four weeks at 20 hours a week would be sufficient to “recover” from the overtime. But it actually takes longer than four weeks. And the longer you go, the longer it takes. It’s a bad decision financially. It’s a bad decision for product quality. And it’s a bad decision if you like having employees – because the employees you have today are going to leave as soon as they find a different job.

Does that sound like a solid business practice?

What is Sustainable Pace?

Sustainable pace is the concept that a team can produce and deliver value consistently and indefinitely. The team operates at a predictable – and consistent – pace. If a team can deliver twenty points of value every sprint, they’re not suddenly asked to deliver forty. There might be small, incremental improvements over time, but nothing radical.

Each team is different and will have a different pace. Just because Team A can deliver fifty points means that Team B can do the same. There are far too many variables in those estimates, it’s like comparing apples and koala bears.

It’s Just Smarter

Management 3.0 Book Cover
Management 3.0 Book Cover

Keeping a sustainable pace helps the team be a bit more predictable. If you’re looking at a backlog of two hundred points of work and your team can deliver twenty points per sprint, it’s going to take about ten sprints to deliver that (and you better be estimating higher than that). But it’s a good guideline. That can help the business determine scope, possible delivery dates, schedule marketing materials, and so on. Without that, it all becomes guesswork.

And, to top it off, sustainable pace help keep employees engaged and happy (what we want in today’s business). Coupled with good 21st-century management techniques, companies can attract and retain top talent. And top talent helps you compete in today’s marketplace. And your company is viewed a good place to work.

Now that does sound like a solid business practice.

@ Velocity

I always advocate for our teams, even if that’s “tough love” at times. The one thing I will always fight, though, is the idea that “a little overtime is fine”. No. Never. Don’t do it. I do push back to keep it from happening. Not because I don’t care for our clients or our employees. But because I DO care for them. I want our teams to continue being successful and keeping our clients happy. And I want our clients to deliver high-quality solutions to their customers. Mostly this is because – in spite of over a century of scientific analysis – many people still believe that overtime isn’t a big deal.

Closing Thoughts

Overtime and sustainable pace are difficult and challenging conversations. Most people are simply uneducated about the dangers. They think burn-out might be the only real danger, but as shown above, it’s far more than just that. As a good partner, I see my role as helping to educate them about the dangers of overtime. They can disagree – that’s fine – but the data is clear. The best products come from those teams who work at a sustainable pace. And to those people on the Warhammer 40k delivery team – I wish you my best.

Feliz entrenamiento, mis amigos! (Happy coaching, my friends!)

Sustainable Pace - What Is It and Why Do We Care?

Bill DeVoe