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Working at a Sustainable Pace
JAN 28, 2015 15:00 PM
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Working at a Sustainable Pace

Sustainable pace is a crap concept: We usually view it as the pace at which we should work, more or less. And while the "more" should happen infrequently and only in small amounts the "less" rarely enters our consciousness.

It does make sense for physical activity. I run a marathon at sustainable pace because to work less is to diminish the sense of accomplishment. That doesn't mean that I'll feel as whole and happy at the end as if I'd been having a nice walk on the beach sipping Pina Coladas.

And, yes, the Puritan work ethic aside, I deserve that once in a while, too. Sustainable pace is a concept left over from the industrial days when productivity was important, and when time could be viewed as correlating to productivity.

Will your work connect with anybody?

Today, the wisest among the Lean folks know that productivity is the number one cause of waste: if I individually keep producing to my heart's content, there's no guarantee that my work will connect with anything down the line to generate any value. I should instead work at the pace of the demand.

And in knowledge businesses fuelled by innovation, more hours on the line or at the desk are probably less effective than hours at the art museum. Jurgen Appelo has been writing recently about unlimited vacation; I think that perspective restores the balance that gives our non-work life at least equal time.

It's not about working a standard work week: it's about the unwork of what DeMarco used to call "undertime." Why do we talk about how much time we work instead of how much time we play with our kids? The agile angle?

The ideal enterprise produces infinite value with zero effort: the goal is to approximate that. Just putting a high-water-mark on the time you work is a sign of an immature organization. No one cares how much time you worked: what's important is delivered value, and how much time remains until you deliver.

Value not time

Value rises with efficiency. We decrease effort through efficiency. Any measure of time worked ("sustainable pace") works against the goal. "Sustainable pace" is agile's bone to management so they don't have to feel their people are lazy.

I think this perspective — emphasizing personal time over time at work — is a strong Danish tradition of the past one or two generations. One works enough to get the job done and is at work long enough to connect with colleagues — not to fill a time card. Sure, there are those sweatshops where things are so bad that even sustainable pace is an improvement.

Organisations that measure work in hours are suspect (which is one of the reasons I suggest that people measure effort in vingummibamser: "gummy bears.") On a practical level, our company strives to optimize value per engagement while minimizing number of engagements per year. One vulgar aspect of value is revenue, which is incontrovertible enough to be a basis for discussion and comparison:.

Jim ("Cope") Coplien is an old C++ shark who now integrates the technological and human sides of the software business as an author, coach, trainer, and executive consultant. He is one of the founders of the software pattern discipline, and his organizational patterns work is one of the foundations of both Scrum and XP. He currently works for Gertrud & Cope, is based in Denmark, and is a partner in the Scrum Foundation. He has authored or co-authored many books, including the Wiley title, Lean Architecture for Agile Software Development. When he grows up, he wants to be an anthropologist.

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