Outside of my day job I’m a keen cyclist. I say “keen” if keen means looking into training programmes to raise my fitness levels and doing a 40 mile round trip commute to work three times a week. Some people, non-cyclists, think that is mad. If you are a cyclist, you’ll understand.
Currently I’m combining a training programme with my commutes which means some days I’ll be doing a training session and on other days, rest days, I’ll just be riding in at a steady pace. Like many cyclists I capture all my statistics, speed, cadence and heart rate, in an application and pour over the details at every opportunity. What I noticed when looking at my commuting stats reinforced the reason that a team that works at hard but sustainable pace is a better place to be than a team that is running at full tilt from one fire to the next. Read on for my justification.
My training sessions consist of a set of intervals where I push my heart rate into a specific zone. Without going into all of the biology and sport science, this heart rate zone has your body working at its maximum sustainable rate. Here the rate at which the body is consuming fuel matches the maximum rate the body can supply it. When I encounter a hill I have 22 gears to choose from to keep myself in the right zone. I can also adjust my pedal cadence or even my position on the bike. I can call on additional effort, but I can only do so for short periods and it causes nasty side effects, such as the build-up of lactic acid. If I push too hard it will all go wrong and I will crawl to a halt.
This is the same with a team at full tilt, running from one crisis to another. The team can sustain this effort but it comes at a price. There is no room to reflect or innovate. They have a fixed scope and a fixed deadline and there is no contingency for unexpected problems. They effectively have very few gears to use and are forced to go beyond their sustainable capacity. Again there are side effects, such as having to work long hours and weekends. Technical debt may build up and there is a detrimental effect on team morale. If the team is asked to work this hard for too long the team will fall apart. People may leave the team temporarily or permanently. The team is burnt out, which is equivalent to me leaning over my bike by the side of the road, feeling very ill.
On my none training days I ride at a brisk pace but keep my heart rate a bit lower. I can keep this pace up for the whole trip. If I feel like it, I can do quick little sprints to avoid traffic or nip through a green light. I sometimes use these rides to focus on my form, making sure I am spinning full circles with the pedals rather than stomping, or ensuring I am holding a good position on the bike. If the weather is nice it is an enjoyable experience.
But the interesting revelation comes when I compare training and none training rides. My average speed on the training rides, where I am working harder, is lower than the easy rides. There is not much in it but the statistic does stand out. My training app gives each ride a suffer score which is based on which heart rate zones I was in. All of the training rides get a much higher score. They also felt harder. So why are the easier rides quicker?
When I look closely I can see that the training rides consist of lots of peaks and troughs. The peaks are when I am working hard and the troughs highlight recovery periods. The easy rides have a more consistent profile; I am keeping that effort up for the whole ride. It never reaches the peaks of the training ride but I also don’t spend much time at the lower speeds I do on the training rides. This is what is happening to the team that is working flat out. Over time they are peaking and recovering. They peak during key milestones in their project, usually during releases and they are under performing when the pressure is off.
A team working at a sustainable pace is likely to be more productive. By not pushing the team too hard you are effectively giving it more gears to deploy when dealing with upcoming challenges. The team also has opportunities to look at its form which may improve the team’s overall performance over time. It goes against some classic old school but unfortunately very prevalent management thinking of “Apply pressure and get results”. In my experience this is not sustainable and doesn’t create a team that is a nice place to be. Good talent is hard to find so why would you want to alienate your team members and burn them out.
Yet many organisations do exactly that!