Thursday, 29 September 2011

Pressure versus Urgency - is there a difference?

Last week I experienced an interesting interaction with the lead architect on my team, who'd been away for several days on a conference; and come back to find things not to his liking - the quality of the deliveries was not up to standard, people were not adhering to the architecture -- his take was that the team are under enormous pressure from me to get things done and delivered at the end of the sprint.

This caught me by surprise at first - how odd, I've not even started applying any pressure...But I've grown used to the different kinds of people on the project team; and hence didn't react negatively or emotionally.  My reaction:
"I appreciate your concern and understand where you're coming from. I think there's been a misunderstanding, perhaps due to my not making myself clear. There is a difference between Pressure and Urgency.  Yes, there's a sense of urgency around us finishing work according to plan because people are depending on work being created, but at no point should we compromise quality  - there was no pressure to take short-cuts; the architecture rules must be adhered to, no working off a branch, everything must be done on the main product, adhering to all quality standards..."

Having satisfied this architect, who left away happy that we were on the same page, I was still left with a sense of uncertainty myself. The team have probably got the concepts mixed up, although to be fair, there is rather a vague line between the two terms Pressure & Urgency -- but big difference with how these terms manifest themselves through action.  In the spirit of collaboration I then fired off an email to the team highlighting the difference in the context of our project and business needs, and then settled the matter at the retrospective. It turned out, as so often is the case with these things, the architect misunderstood what the team had been attempting, working on a branch only to prove concepts and theories that necessitate rapid development at the expense of some the architectural bottlenecks, i.e. we willingly broke the architecture to prove a few points....

Nevertheless, I still wonder if I may have unconsciously contributed to applying artificial pressure. I will explain the nature of my current project in a future post - Suffice to say my role is blurred, call it "Pseudo-Scum-Master-trying-to-balance-Hard-Delivery-Project-Manager-Development Manager-with-a-slight-touch-of-Product-and-Programme-Manager". I am seriously not blowing my own trumpet here, we are an evolving project team where the (unwritten) roles&responsibilities that were supposedly assumed well defined is in reality quite blurry - no surprise to software development projects, and especially not surprising when its an organisation's first attempt at truly in-house software development...

Definition of Pressure according to Free Dictionary
The ones that stand out for me are:

  • the act of pressing
  • the condition of being pressed
  • the application of continuous force by one body on another that it is touching; compression
  • a compelling or constraining influence, such as a moral force, on the mind or will: pressure to conform
  • urgent claim or demand: under the pressure of business
  • to force, as by overpowering influence or persuasion.
    an urgent claim or demand or series of urgent claims or demands to work under pressure
  • the quality or condition of being urgent; pressing importance: the urgency of the call for help; pleading with urgency.
  • a pressing necessity
  • all hands and the cook A state of emergency which of necessity becomes everyone’s top priority. This early American cowboy expression described the precarious state of affairs in which the herds were wild and all available persons were needed to bring the situation under control. Under normal circumstances, cowboys tended herds and cooks fed the cowhands; however, an emergency required that everyone chip in, temporarily ignoring differences of rank or task.
  • the state of being urgent; an earnest and insistent necessity
Agile lends itself well to Urgency
The very nature of Agile/Scrum with its fixed sprint cycles, the two-week time-box for example can be in itself quite pressurising. There is a natural sense of urgency to ensure that enough detailed planning is done up-front, the work is well understood and the team hit the ground running on day one of the sprint. In Ken Schwaber's Agile Project management with Scrum, he talks about how important it is to do detailed planning, that agile doesn't ignore sensible process; and the importance of delivering something at the end of the sprint.

Incidentally, the same architect who talked to me about pressure, at my interview took pride in saying that the team would do whatever it takes to finish the sprint  according to plan - work overtime, come in on weekends, etc - what gives? According to Dave@PracticalAgility, projects with urgent goals are prime agile candidates, but he also cautions not rushing along to do things quickly, and the importance of taking a pause - which coincidentally is what I've proposed to senior management just yesterday (only saw his post today as I googled on this subject)...

Is there really a difference between Urgency & Pressure?
Yes, there is. It's not just my take on it - Others outside of software face similar challenges. Take for example the Pressure VS Urgency from Real Estate, although software projects are a little more peculiar.

People Under Pressure Don't Think Faster!
Tom DeMarco dedicates chapter 15 "Think Fast" of The Deadline to the effects of pressure. The Deadline is an interesting tale as it covers almost every experience one encounters in software projects, especially the unrealistic and nonsensical demands from senior management placed on their underlings, with the poor project manager acting as the buffer. "Think Fast" is about the main stakeholder changing direction and enforcing his might just because he can, and this sets the team down the road of discussing & modelling the effects of pressure. It concludes by asking the ever-knowing Oracle:

Why does the effect of pressure on programmers max out after only 6% productivity gain?

Oracle replies:


DeMarco then summarises the effects of pressure (Page 199, The Deadline):

  • People under pressure don't think any faster
  • Extended overtime is a productivity-reduction tactic
  • Short bursts of pressure and even overtime may be a useful tactic as they focus people and increase the sense that the work is important, but extended pressure is always a mistake
  • Perhaps managers make so much use of pressure because they don't know what else to do, or are daunted by how difficult the alternatives are
  • Terrible suspicion: The real reason for use of pressure and overtime may be to make everyone look better when the project fails
The same message is discussed in the more serious book, outside of the novel context, in DeMarco's "Slack", Chapter 7, titled "The Cost of Pressure". Hopefully you can see this snapshot, please get a copy of this book.

Essentially confirming what is now well known: Pressure has limited capacity to reduce delivery time, maybe 10 or 15 percent at the most. Excessive pressure weakens performance. The model is divided into 3 regions:

  • Region 1: workers respond to increasing pressure, eliminating waste, staying late, focus on critical path - falsely suggesting improved delivery
  • Region 2: workers are getting tired, feeling pressure from home, doing other stuff "undertime" - no motivation, unwilling to sustain, resigning to ignorance
  • Region 3: workers are polishing up CVs and beginning to look elsewhere
Closing Summary - Software projects can't hide from Pressure/Urgency
I have in the past worked on many a demanding project and I've always challenged management's decisions of increasing the pressure points, always quick to point out that adding pressure doesn't make people work any faster, it'll take as long as it takes, people will leave the project, etc. I must admit though, that I've come to learn there is indeed a difference between urgency and pressure; but it takes some tact to get it right. When people are motivated by an urgent need - urgent needs can be good motivators - people surprise themselves - problems are solved in novel ways, there is more focus and concentration. There is a natural pressure of course, but not the kind of pressure from a demanding boss expecting results now now now - if the urgency is communicated well, it brings out the best in people. If it's just imposed pressure, people turn to acid and can't wait to leave the project.

Applied in bursts, pressure/urgency can be a great tool - ultimately though, you're working through people - so ensure people are rewarded and appreciated for their efforts!

I have personally been on projects that may have seemed like Death Marches, but appreciated the sense of urgency to get things done, the reward was self-gratification is seeing the product deployed in tens of millions of people's homes, or providing crucial services to improving the company's bottom-line. Yes, some  projects could definitely been managed differently to avoid burnout, but sometimes, in the world of business this is an unfortunate reality; and especially in today's globalised economy - the hard truth of the matter is, engineers are a dime a dozen..

It is still important though to make sure your team understands the context of the business, the phase of the project and have a sense of awareness of the demands being placed on them, giving them the right and freedom to express concerns of pressure impacting the deliveries.


  1. Last week I'd asked my very own Oracle, Seth Godin for his view on the subject. This was his response:

    Q: Pressure versus Urgency: in which context will you get the most out of your people??

    A: I think internal motivation is the best kind of course

  2. I also posed the question of overtime to Mike Cohn & Ken Schwaber on Twitter. Here's how the conversation unfolded:

    MuhammadJK (khanmjk) ‏@tweetKhanmjk
    @kschwaber @mikewcohn @scrumology What are the views on improving project velocity by working short bursts of overtime (weekends)? #agile

    Mike Cohn ‏@mikewcohn
    @tweetKhanmjk Overtime not a problem unless it becomes excessive (continuous) or forced. Short bursts are ok.

    MuhammadJK (khanmjk) ‏@tweetKhanmjk
    @mikewcohn So it shouldn't be a problem if overtime is modelled into the burn-up / burn down to predict completing Development earlier? Thnx

    Mike Cohn ‏@mikewcohn
    @tweetKhanmjk not a problem for me but make sure it's not a problem for the team

    MuhammadJK (khanmjk) ‏@tweetKhanmjk
    @mikewcohn yes of course, team must buy-in! Thanx for your time. Pity that some management folks are still stuck in their old ways. Cheers