What is a Sustainable Pace?

Adriana Campoy and Rafael Morante
October 11, 2019

One of the principles we mention in our Playbook is that our teams strive to reach and maintain a sustainable pace of work. But what exactly does this term mean, and where did this idea come from? In this post, we'll dive into a little bit of Agile history and take a look at why achieving a sustainable pace is crucial to high-quality software development.

A Brief History of Sustainable Work

The Agile Manifesto lists sustainable software development as one of its driving principles, stating that "sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely." 1 This Agile principle nods to takt time, a lean manufacturing concept that aims to exactly match the time and resources utilized in production to the level of customer demand. By calculating a standard interval of time that it takes to create something, from the beginning stages to the moment the product or feature is released to the customer, the production system can maximize efficiency and avoid waste.

Takt time was first used in German aircraft manufacturing in the 1930s. It was later adopted by Toyota in the 1950s, and it became a fundamental part of the Toyota Production System (TPS). 2 When translated to the field of software development, observing takt time means increasing efficiency to achieve a predictable rate of output. This helps build the customer's trust, as they can count on a certain number of software releases within a given period of time.

Software engineer and XP guru Kent Beck also laid some of the groundwork for the concept of sustainable work in 1999 with the first edition of Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change. In his book, Beck argued in favor of a 40-hour workweek and against working overtime for a second consecutive week. 3 XP co-founder Ron Jeffries later proposed using the term "sustainable pace," which puts a greater emphasis on the energy expended rather than a specific number of hours, and the idea caught on. 4

Why should teams strive for a sustainable pace?

Perhaps the most obvious advantage of working at a sustainable pace is that it helps software developers avoid burnout. Early proponents of sustainable work had observed the damaging effects of "crunch time" under traditional waterfall project management. Impending project deadlines often forced teams into a soul-crushing "death march" of extended periods of overtime. 5 In addition to a negative impact on team members' health, a culture of crunch time ultimately contributes to higher attrition rates, which in turn affect team cohesion and morale. Maintaining a sustainable pace, on the other hand, helps team members stay motivated throughout the full life cycle of a project.

It would be a big mistake to assume that sustainable software development only benefits developers, however. A sustainable pace offers even greater advantages for the customer by increasing productivity and quality, both of which contribute to lower costs. Let's take a moment to examine how sustainable work serves customers' interests.

Working at a sustainable pace does not mean going slowly and taking it easy; in fact, it requires energized and intensely focused work. The idea is to hit the maximum amount of productive work while giving people enough time to rest and recover so that they can maintain the same pace without losing energy. This is why extended periods of overtime are inadvisable. While one week of overtime might boost progress on a project, studies show that productivity declines during the second week, and continues declining the longer the team works overtime. 6 Tired, overworked teams end up getting the same or a lower amount of work done as those with a healthy work-life balance.

If a team frequently resorts to working overtime, this is can be an indication that there are deeper product or process-related issues affecting the team's efficiency. There could also be business factors in play, such as a lack of good product ownership or a clear product roadmap based on empirical, customer-focused data, both of which are crucial to leading the development effort. An Agile approach advocates identifying and fixing any fundamental issues as soon as possible, rather than tacking on extra hours to make up for lost productivity. 7 Keeping a constant pace helps teams estimate tickets more accurately, which allows customers to know what to expect.

A sustainable pace gives teams the time and energy to think of creative solutions to problems. It's also a good measure to protect the quality of the code and minimize technical debt. When teams are under a lot of pressure and frequently work extra hours, they're more likely to cut corners and write messy code. The more technical debt a product accrues, the harder it can become to innovate, make changes, or adapt to user feedback in a timely manner. Parts of the product may even need to be rewritten, which is costly for the customer. 8

In contrast, maintaining a sustainable pace fosters an environment in which developers are empowered to do their best work. From a product management perspective, experts recommend best practices like letting the team pull work into the sprint, rather than pushing work on them, so that the team decides how much can be accomplished. 9

At sophilabs, working at a sustainable pace is just one of the ways we apply Agile practices. If you're curious to know more about our approach to software development, we recommend checking out our Playbook or reading more about how we work.

  1. "Principles behind the Agile Manifesto," Agile Manifesto, 2001. 

  2. Lean Enterprise Institute, Lean Lexicon, s.v. "Takt Time." 

  3. Agile Glossary, s.v. "Sustainable Pace." 

  4. Ron Jeffries, "Sustainable Pace." 

  5. Blake McMillan, "Keeping a Sustainable Pace," Scrum.org, July 14, 2018. 

  6. Mike Taylor, "Studies Show Working Overtime is Basically Pointless," Entrepreneur Magazine, February 1, 2017. 

  7. Agile Glossary, s.v. "Sustainable Pace." 

  8. Roman Pichler, "Technical Debt and Product Success," December 4, 2018. 

  9. Roman Pichler, "8 Tips for Collaborating with Development Teams," July 11, 2016, and "Pull Processes with Lean, Kanban and Scrum," May 26, 2010. 

"What is a Sustainable Pace?" by Adriana Campoy and Rafael Morante is licensed under CC BY SA. Source code examples are licensed under MIT.

Photo by sophilabs.

Categorized under research & learning / agile / people & culture.

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