When Does Sustainable Become Unsustainable?

“Those who speak most of progress measure it by quantity and not by quality.” -George Santayana

I was talking to some folks on a team today. They had been put under  lot of pressure in the last few months. You could tell they were pretty burnt out right away. If you started to ask questions, you got defensive behavior almost immediately. They were exhausted and had no patience for anything other than getting out of the office.

This happens to a lot of teams, regardless of whether or not they are agile. You push super hard and then maybe a little harder…until you’ve got nothing left. Then you need some recovery time.  How do we measure when we cross into unsustainable territory?

That’s not an uncommon story in the athletic world either. People overwork themselves while training all the time. Overtraining is a well recognized phenomena and athletes and their coaches have come up with a variety of ways to manage the problem. When looking at the amount of work, typically they measure the volume of work, the intensity of the effort,  and some relative estimate of the overall exertion.

When it comes to the work that software teams do, these measures are also useful. Volume is easy, it can be an overall measure of the size of the work. The sum of the hours or story points for example. However, when it comes to intensity, we have no such measure for software teams. All work is not uniformly easy to accomplish. Some work is quite simple and other work is quite a strain (mentally, emotionally, or otherwise). I’m thinking specifically of work that you may have never done before. Doing something for the first time can be very challenging. We can measure intensity in terms of a simple percentage from 0 to 100% (or more). So we have two quite different dimensions for measuring the work that we do. The volume of the work and the intensity of the work are orthogonal to each other.

There is one more element that is worth taking into consideration, what is referred to in the sports world as the Ratio of Perceived Effort. This is a measure that is taken after the fact. It is a rating of how much you have left in the tank after performing the work. Was it easy? Great perhaps you could do 5 more stories just like that. Was it challenging? Perhaps you could only do one more. Did it take everything you had in you? Maybe you’re done for the day.

In the agile community we have eschewed any sort of measure of effort beyond relative sizing. The common advice has been to use story points and you have all you need. I’m starting to wonder if we shouldn’t broaden our horizons a bit and try adopting some of these measures that we see others using in other disciplines (like sports). After all, they’ve been paying close attention to the amount of work they do and how to manage it for a lot longer than we in the agile world have. So maybe it’s time to give some thought to measuring additional dimensions like volume, intensity, and maybe even the Ratio of Perceived Effort.

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