Using tempo to avoid the chaos of agile methodologies

Leverage the power of effective tempos within cyclical execution environments to build software better.

Software engineering nowadays is filled with buzzwords and jargon. The agile movement has ushered in an plethora of Agile processes. Practices like poker planning and t-shirt estimation have become popular, packaged up in formal development methodologies like Kanban, Lean, and Scrum, and XP.

Let’s take a moment to pull the curtain back on these methodologies.

They all have their nuances, but at their core is a central assumption: software engineering that occurs in a cyclical nature is more effective at responding to changing environments than traditional highly planned, single-shot execution models such as waterfall.

These agile methodologies leverage working and executing in cycles of activity, using various rituals and processes to promote and manage cyclical execution.

These cycles are both an advantage and a potential disadvantage. The improved agility is accompanied by a more frantic pace of activity. There’s a greater need to adapt, and less time for in-depth planning and detail.

Leaders operating within these cyclical execution environments must be well versed in how to effectively manage these cycles. Without proper control, agile can quickly turn from a virtuous cycle into a flailing death spiral: instead of rolling the project forward, it gets flushed down the toilet.

Understanding the cycle

Cyclical execution like Sprints generally rely on three phases:

  • Aligning
  • Empowering
  • Executing

These three phases are repeated over and over at set intervals — the heartbeat of cyclical execution.

Aligning

Aligning is the process of getting everyone pointed in the same direction by establishing clarity. It’s also the phase where the team can regroup, re-evaluate goals, and potentially change direction based on new information.

Agile methodologies like Scrum use Sprint Planning as an alignment tool before the next cycle to ensure that everyone has a clear and unified direction. Tools like Sprint Retrospectives and after-action reviews provide an opportunity to collect feedback and improve processes for the next iteration.

Empowering

Larger, concerted efforts require significant amounts of coordination to manage resources. Empowering means that the lead ensures that the team has what they need to execute.

Whether that means people, tools, information, or authority is going to be context-dependent. Boundaries between teams are established, and authority is clarified.

Executing

This is the phase of the cycle where the work actually gets done. The team executes on the goals with the resources they have.

The more time a team within this phase, the more effective it will be, provided they are sufficiently aligned and empowered. Teams that have run through multiple cycles will naturally gravitate towards spending more and more time within execution due to jelling effects.

How can leaders manage this cycle effectively? There’s many techniques, but at the core of them is a single principle: tempo.

What is tempo?

Simply put, tempo is the pace at which an activity occurs. Control of it is at the core of successful execution in cyclical models like many Agile methodologies.

As a leader, you’re able to leverage processes and take actions to set the tempo of execution — controlling the pace of activity through the cycle as needed given the operating environment.

The concept isn’t new — it’s been discussed with various flavorings for years, such as in Boyd’s OODA loop or the Lean startup methodology. Establishing effective tempos has been a core part of everything from the synchronization of rowing teams to the defeat of militaries via maneuver warfare.

Why is tempo important?

An effective tempo provides a predictable, clarified environment where team members can adjust their own behavior and self-synchronize, reducing execution friction and promoting alignment. Simply put: everyone knows what to expect because they’ve done it before and it’ll happen again.

When a leader sets the right tempo and manages cyclical execution effectively, they provide their team initiative. This initiative allows them to proactively dictate the flow of action instead of having to operate in a reactionary mindset.

When you don’t control the tempo, the tempo controls you.

When the tempo controls you, it means you and your team have lost the initiative — the capability to act on your own timeline and control your own direction.

When the team is always reacting to things, it will never make forward, focused progress towards its goals except by accident.

Without establishing an effective tempo, you’re a victim to the whims of the environment you’re operating in.

Setting an effective tempo

Setting effective tempos is a key part of creating high-initiative, autonomous teams. Without an effective tempo, it is difficult to establish boundaries, supervise efforts, and allow team members to self-synchronize.

Ensure it is consistent.

Good tempos don’t change from one cycle to another, unless the environment demands it. A tempo that is constantly changing and inconsistent causes jarring, unpredictable execution, which creates chaos and leads to an increase in execution friction across teams.

The activities performed within a cycle should also be as consistent as the environment will reasonably allow.

Knowing that a specific activity occurs on a set schedule allows teams to prepare, practice, and synchronize with it in mind without having to spend extra effort coordinating.

By having consistency, teams can gain several benefits:

  • Iterative cycles build patterns that turn into habit behaviors.
  • Repetition turns knowledge-based actions into intuition-based actions, allowing them to be performed faster and more effectively.
  • Provides clarity in expectations of behavior, making work predictable and easier to manage.
  • Provides opportunities for team members to self synchronize without having to take execution time to realign.

Make sure the operating tempo is relatively fast.

Relatively fast means that the tempo of execution must be faster than the external forces acting against the execution. This also means that while individual actions may be done slowly, the overall pace of execution timed as a full cycle is faster than whatever external forces are being operated against — whether these be the market, stakeholders, etc.

Effective tempos aren’t just fast, they are fast enough.

Make sure the tempo is sustainable.

There’s no sense burning out the team by charging at 110% to accomplish an objective. It’s important to make sure that the tempo is within the capability of the team to execute the cycle over and over again.

This means the lead must ensure that the tempo that is set can be operated at indefinitely by the team. Sustainment is key for any initiative lasting more than a short time.

Create well-defined starts and stops.

“Death marches” can occur when a once-cyclical tempo starts to feel like it is dragging on. Back-to-back sprints that continuously bleed over become indistinguishable from project death marches. Sprints turn into marathons.

The lead must ensure that each iteration of the cycle has a well-defined beginning and end to signal which phase of the cycle is being entered. Well-defined starts and stops prevent burn-out caused by the perception of continuous exertion.

Prevent jarring tempo transitions.

Consistency leads to predictability, and having a tempo that is consistent allows the team to operate with clearer expectations due to understanding what’s expected of them at any given point.

They’ll know the what’s expected of them at every stage of the cycle, and the consistent speed will allow them to time their actions appropriately without having to pause execution to re-align.

Avoid bleed-over work.

Work that carries from cycle to cycle can make multiple consecutive cycles blend together to feel like a single, never-ending cycle.

This kind of tempo makes work feel lengthened and runs the risk of turning the cyclical execution into a dragged out never-ending death march. It increases the potential for burnout and reduces a team’s effectiveness.

It is preferred to work on something, put it down temporarily, and then work on it again rather than working on it for more than a few cycles.

How to set tempos

There’s many ways to set the tempo on your team.

Within an Agile Scrum engineering team, the primary tempo setting tool is often a 2-week sprint.

However, that’s not the only tool you have. Different time ranges can have different effective tempos that roll up into a larger operational tempo.

Ensuring that there’s an effective tempo at each of these variable time ranges is important.

Immediate-term
Immediate-term tempos can be set to condition work that occurs day to day or moment to moment. Things like daily check-ins (stand-ups), lunch breaks, and scheduled blocks of time to code set the cadence of the day’s work.

Practices like the red/green/refactor cycles of Test Driven Development help set the moment-to-moment tempo.

Effective immediate-term tempo setting is often done by the individuals, but can be encouraged by the team leads through various environment controls such as more considerate scheduling.

Near-term
Near-term tempos can ensure that week-to-week progress is made. Within a 2-week sprint, week-to-week tempos can help provide early warning signs of potential schedule slippage or difficulties.

These opportunities to raise and identify yellow flags are critical to staying on schedule or adapting to schedule lapses.

Things like weekly alignment meetings, setting sub-week goals, 1:1s, and after-week reviews can help establish the weekly cadence of activity and provide checkpoints for activity and progress.

Mid-term
Mid-term tempos are often the primary focus of Agile methodologies — Sprints are the most obvious form of cycles.

Sprint plannings and sprint retrospectives help define the tempo of the mid-term timespan, establishing clear starts and stops to the Sprint cycle. Practices from other methodologies like project kick-offs or JAM sessions can help compliment the tempo.

Long-term
Long-term tempos can be established to ensure the overall alignment and direction of an organization is still approaching its operating environment in a relevant way.

This is the equivalent of making sure you’re not stuck running a disposable camera service when the entire world has digital cameras on their cellphones.

Such tempos may be month-to-month or quarter-to-quarter or even year to year. Things like all-hands meetings, quarterly off-sites, and other similar direction setting meetings help keep people aligned with the long-term vision.

Cyclical execution models like agile provide significant opportunities but also presents new challenges for software projects. Managing the cycle by setting the proper tempo is a key factor in achieving a successful project.

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