Different songs have a different cadence.

Different songs have a different cadence.

If you listen to the radio, talk or music, you will notice that the cadence you hear varies song-to-song, show-to-show or podcast-to-podcast. One cadence simply does not fit all people or situations. Songs, talk or software development the concept is the same.  In Agile, there are three types of cadence variation. They are innovation or recovery sprints, slow then fast and irregular sprints. Organizations tend to push towards a standardized cadence however they a few twists and turns might add a lot of value.

Innovation or Recovery Sprints. Innovation or recovery sprints are sometimes used to demarcate periods of significant development effort. These types of sprints are generally part of larger cadence cycles, just like the changes of seasons mark the boundaries of solar cycles within the overall annual cycle. Activities in these types of sprints often include training, vacations, planning for future sprints or roadmap building. Knowledge generation activities in these sprints often include infrastructure building, prototyping, spikes, building out the architectural runway for the project and hackathons. Sometimes these innovation and recovery sprints are used for catchup or overall integration testing (if not possible during standard sprints). A Scaled Agile Framework Enterprise (SAFe) program increment is generally 8 – 12 weeks long made up of 4 to 6 2-week sprints. The last sprint is an Innovation Planning (IP) Sprint. All of the teams involved in the program increment participate in the IP sprint. In February 2014, Mike Cohn described an overall cadence of 6 x 2 +1, 6 2-week development sprints followed by a 1-week sprint for catchup, recovery and improving the team’s capabilities. The primary goal of innovation or recovery sprints is to improvement the capability of the team (or teams) involved. Learning, planning, exploration, reduction of technical debt and recovery improves the ability to deliver value when the next overall cycle begins.

Slow Then Fast Sprints. This variation is similar to the ebb and flow of cadence in a concert. The overall cadence at the beginning of many concerts I have attended are  generally slower than the cadence at the end. The cadence builds up to generate excitement so that then end of the concert is a crescendo. Recently at a monthly meeting of the Cleveland Agile Group, Chris Bohatka described a project that began with 2-week sprints, however 2 months before the end of the project shifted to 1-week sprints. The shift in cadence used the knowledge and team esprit de corps that had been built to accelerate the cadence and provide new functionality on a weekly basis. Interestingly it was noted in the presentation that the team probably would never go back to the longer/slower cadence. This is one of the VERY few times I have ever seen this behavior. Typically managers indicate that their teams will start with three or four week sprints and then accelerate, then the teams never accelerate their cadences. In theory this behavior seem to make sense however follow through is generally poor because team settle into a rhythm and get comfortable.

Irregular Sprints. While I have heard of Agile teams with irregular cadences, I have never actually seen a team perform in this manner over any significant period of time. Teams that are alleged to have irregular cadences often modify their cadence based on the story size and their inability to break them down. Sometimes implementation of continuous delivery, Kanban or a kanbanny-form Scrumban are confused with irregular cadence. These techniques, heavily influenced by lean, either don’t leverage or deemphasize the idea of cadence. They focus more on the continuous flow of work than on the time box that cadence generates. This is not the same thing as irregular cadence. Irregular cadence is most often a reflection of lack of discipline or a problem with how stories are being groomed.

A sustainable pace is one of the benefits of Agile. Sustainable is sometimes thought of as delivering prioritized user stories every “x” weeks, month in and month out. Innovation and recovery sprints interspersed at regular intervals are a great idea to ensure sustainability. Teams need to learn, innovate and in some cases catch-up to their promises. Interspersing innovation or recovery sprint at regular intervals is reflection of a higher order cadence. Using the knowledge gathered by working as a team, delivering functionality and innovation team can accelerate the cadence, or at least has the option so that functionality can be delivered sooner AND feedback cna be gained sooner. Irregular sprints rarely make sense unless teams are ready to move to continuous delivery. Cadence in Agile projects promotes predictability and discipline which are attributes valued by both IT management and the business.