Should work be done in sprints?

From the NYTimes

This bit from Jason Fried in “How we structure our work and teams at Basecamp” got me thinking:

“I despise the word sprints. Sprints and work don’t go together. This isn’t about running all out as fast as you can, it’s about working calmly, at a nice pace, and making smart calls along the way. No brute force here, no catching our collective breath at the end.”

I agree with Jason. I prefer working at a calm, non-frantic pace. Regardless of how much work we have on our plate, there are times when it’s best to be slow and deliberate and not running from one task to another.

Or biking from one task to another.

However, I think there is something to be said about expending energy in a way that is most effective. I agree that work isn’t about running as fast as you can, but sprints, to me at least, means channeling your energy in a way that is most productive for your work and your own well-being.

Sprints as a Sustainable Pace

I think a sprint, in the Agile software development sense, is a smart way to work as a team.

A sprint is a period of time when a team creates a shippable piece of work. Sprints can be as short as one week or as long as 30 days. As sprints are recurring, each sprint incorporates previous feedback (from customers or collaborators) to improve the product.

Since only a certain level of quality can be produced in a given space of time, the team must create a product or solution that is safe to try or ship. That something doesn’t have to be perfect — it just has to be viable and improvable. This way, the team can make incremental progress and won’t get stuck in attempting to create the most flawless, foolproof solution.

The term “sprint” might mislead people into thinking that setting a deadline (like finish lines) leads to sloppy work done at speed. But a firm principle in Agile is sustainable pace. In the Agile Manifesto, sustainable pace is regarded as:

“Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

A team sprint doesn’t have to look like running just full speed. For some teams, a sprint could be calm and unhurried. For others, it could be rapid and intense. However slow or fast that pace may be, it must be sustainable for it to be effective.

Being Ambitious and Having Balance

Working at a sustainable pace also applies to how we work individually.

At The Ready, a trait we love seeing in people is hunger — being determined, resolute, and fired up. Our purpose is to change how the world works, and if your purpose is as ambitious as ours, you absolutely need to be hungry. If you think about it from two areas of The OS Canvas, 1) Purpose and 2) People, Development, and Motivation, an organization with a clear, ambitious purpose motivates people to be hungry.

We also value work-life balance. The question then becomes how do you maintain a personal intensity and fire while also getting proper rest and time for leisure and family?

It’s a tough balance. Hunger could easily be interpreted as having to work late nights, on weekends, and cultivating stress as a virtue (because, if you’re not feeling overwhelmed, you’re not actually hungry, right?).

Being hungry while also having balance could be done by getting clear on your pace that gets you to do your best work.

For me, that pace isn’t working long workweeks. I’m a big proponent of working in high-concentration time blocks (which I’m aware can be interpreted as sprints), using your most productive hours to do your highest-impact work, automating any low-cognitive recurring task, and knowing how to say no to inessential work.

Then on weeknights and weekends, I don’t check email, Google Docs, or Slack. Instead, I think. Read. Dance. Meditate. See a movie. Spend time with loved ones.

Find Your Own Pace

I’m well-aware my style of working could feel stiff and restricting to others. Some people just don’t thrive in setting boundaries and systems. One interesting study shows that those who match their own work style (whether it’s creating rigid boundaries between work and life or blurring the lines between the two) to their actual work experience experienced high satisfaction and well-being.

“Sprinting” 80 hours a week is not the answer for everyone. For others, setting boundaries between work and life doesn’t work either. What’s key to sustainable pace is less about setting rigid boundaries and more about being clear on your own preferences and sticking to them.

For some, this pace is fast, rapid, and intense, with fewer lines between work and life. For others, this is calm and relaxed, with more boundaries set. Whatever speed the pace is, find it and run (but maybe not sprint) with it.

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