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Debunking Sustainable Pace with Dr. Jeff Sutherland and JJ Sutherland

In the ever-evolving landscape of Agile methodologies, the term "sustainable pace" has often been relegated to the realm of buzzwords—misunderstood, misapplied, and at times, even misused as an excuse for mediocrity. I want to reclaim and redefine sustainable pace, elevating it from a mere concept to a potent tool in the arsenal of Agile teams and organizations.

In a meeting at Snowbird, Utah, U.S. in 2001, a group of software development experts gathered to find a common language for their lightweight processes. The term "Agile" was agreed upon, inspired by a book on 100 lean hardware companies that had formed an Agile consortium.

During a mere 10-minute coffee break, eight individuals stayed in the lodge to draft the four core values of the Agile Manifesto. When the remaining 9 returned from the ski slopes, they found the values so compelling that they accepted them without edits. The remainder of the day was spent crafting the 12 guiding principles. One of which was the idea of sustainable pace.

The Weaponization of Agile Principles and The Misinterpretation of Sustainable Pace

Over the years, the Agile community has distorted these principles. Concepts like self- organization were weaponized to mean "do whatever you want," leading to a lack of alignment and accountability. This misinterpretation was so rampant that the Scrum Guide had to be revised. The term "self-organization" was changed to "self-management" to correct this misunderstanding. Similarly, "Servant Leadership" was rephrased to "A Leader Who Serves" because Scrum Masters, operating as “clerks,” were facilitating the failure of 58% of Agile teams. Given the current misuse of "sustainable pace," it's evident that another update to the Scrum Guide is urgently needed.

The concept of "sustainable pace" has been grossly misinterpreted. Originally intended to ensure long-term productivity and innovation, it's now used as a shield against accountability. This misuse has contributed to the high failure rate of “Agile in Name Only” teams. Given this, a re-examination and potential revision of "sustainable pace" in the Scrum Guide are warranted to prevent it from being weaponized against performance.

Drawing from Frison's free energy brain model, high predictability and fewer surprises lead to freeing up energy for innovation. Sustainable pace isn't about going slow; it's about maintaining a pace that allows for continuous innovation without burnout. Managers who pressure teams to finish too much deplete brain energy, making innovation impossible.

The Need for a Reset

It's time to reclaim the true essence of Agile, one that aligns with the principles of complex adaptive systems. Empowerment must be earned and sustained through performance, and "sustainable pace" should never be an excuse for not delivering results. The Scrum Guide, as a living document, must adapt once more to clarify these critical concepts.

In the early 2000s, the Agile Manifesto emerged as a flight manual for navigating the turbulent skies of software development. Crafted by visionaries who had achieved 10x performance through Scrum and XP, the manifesto was a distillation of their collective wisdom. Among its guiding principles was "sustainable pace," a concept rooted in the understanding that high performance is a marathon, not a sprint.

In the world of aviation, fighter aircraft are marvels of engineering, designed for agility and speed. Yet, they are inherently unstable, requiring constant adjustments to maintain course. This mirrors the journey of hyperproductive Scrum teams, who also operate in an inherently unstable environment, making continuous course corrections to sustain their trajectory.

Frison's Theory: The Aerodynamics of the Brain

Frison's theory posits that the brain's evolution is tied to predictability and minimizing surprises. Fighter pilots leverage this innate human trait to maintain control amidst turbulence. Similarly, hyperproductive teams use metrics like velocity and burndown charts to achieve a high level of predictability, thereby minimizing surprises and maximizing performance.

The pattern, “Teams That Finish Early Accelerate Faster” is based on using multiple supporting patterns to achieve a sustainable pace where the team accurately predicts what they can do so they can consistently deliver planned results early. This avoids the cost of not meeting expectations which generates wasted energy to fix a broken situation. That energy is used for continuous improvement, innovation and acceleration of the team.

Sustainable Pace: The Thrust Behind Long-Term Performance

The original intent behind including "sustainable pace" in the Agile Manifesto was to ensure that teams could maintain 10x performance without burning out—akin to how a fighter pilot manages energy to sustain long flights. It's not about slowing down; it's about calibrating your speed to ensure you can go the distance. Sustainable pace, in this context, means high predictability, minimal surprises, and constant innovation.

Just as fighter aircraft require a delicate balance of speed, agility, and control to navigate the skies, hyperproductive teams need a similar balance to navigate the complex landscape of product development. Both entities are guided by the same principles: maximize predictability, minimize surprises, and make constant adjustments to maintain course. This is the essence of sustainable pace, a principle that, when understood and applied correctly, can propel teams to new heights of performance and innovation.

The Flight Path Ahead: Reclaiming Agile's True North

As we continue to explore the Agile landscape, let's remember that the original intent of the Agile Manifesto was to provide a framework for sustained excellence. It's time to reclaim that intent, guided by the lessons we can learn from the aerodynamics of fighter aircraft and the neuroscience of Frison's theory. Sustainable pace is not a compromise; it's a commitment to excellence, a commitment to being Agile in the truest sense of the word.

The term "sustainable pace" has been misused and misunderstood, often serving as a convenient excuse for underperformance. It's time to reclaim its original intent as a weapon for transcendence. The first Scrum and XP teams didn't use this principle to justify mediocrity; they used it to fuel their journey towards 10x performance.

The Final Frontier: Transcendence

By using sustainable pace as a tool for transcendence, organizations can break free from the shackles of mediocrity and soar to new heights. This is not a pipe dream; it's a tangible reality for those willing to embrace the principles and practices that have been proven to work.

Let's not settle for mediocrity when we have the tools and knowledge to achieve greatness.