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Tempo is the overall pace of an activity. It sets the speed at which individuals must deliver their respective contributions. When people must follow rules that dictate the specific content and method of their contributions, they may have trouble keeping up with a pace that is too fast. On the other hand, freedom from such rules can allow them to meet objectives while altering their contributions as required. For example, when I perform in a large ensemble with 13 to 30 musicians of the Impressions in Jazz Orchestra, most of what each musician plays comes from written parts. There’s an expected range for the tempo for any given tune we play. Duke Ellington’s “Stevedore Stomp,” for example, is typically played with a tempo of 260 beats per minute. If I count it off faster than that, either deliberately or by accident, the entire band has to maintain the pace I set, playing all the notes written in their parts at that tempo. If the tempo of the performance is significantly faster than the pace to which people are accustomed, and if they can’t play all their notes well at that speed, the performance will suffer. At best, it might weaken the presentation, with some notes being dropped or tentatively played. At worst, it might result in a total train wreck as people stumble over their parts and lose track of their place in the music. The effects can be cumulative, as one person’s loss of stability affects others who depend on him or her. Just as a tempo that is too fast can lead to problems, a too-slow tempo can also be problematic. For example, the duration of each note is increased and wind instrumentalists must blow for a longer time. For many pieces of music, the piece “sits” right and feels comfortable at a certain tempo range.

In improvised passages within predominantly prescripted music, or in small-group jazz performances in which there is little sheet music to read and most of the notes are improvised, the musicians can cope with a much larger variation in tempo. A simple jazz standard such as “My Funny Valentine” can be played at any tempo, from a really slow ballad at 60 beats per minute to a fast burner at 300 beats per minute. Individual musicians alter their contributions to suit the tempo, while still meeting objectives such as stating the melody or improvising a solo.

In music, variations in tempo typically come at the discretion of the musicians, or at least the leader or conductor of the ensemble. The tempo contributes to the character of the music. A jazz standard played as a slow ballad has a very different feel compared to when it is played at a medium tempo. It’s very different again when played as a burner. Miles Davis’s first quintet played many jazz standards on the classic 1956 Prestige albums Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Steamin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, and Cookin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet. If you listen to performances of the same tunes by the second quintet, such as those on the 1965 Columbia recordings, available as a boxed set called The Complete Live at The Plugged Nickel 1965, you’ll find that the second quintet almost always employed faster tempos. The character of each comparative performance is poles apart.

In other domains, where variations in tempo occur for different reasons, the effect on team members is the same. In a software project, a team may be tasked with delivering a new feature in three months. The only problem is that they had estimated it would require six months. They’ve just learned that a competitor’s product will include a similar feature in a release that will be made available next month. The team’s ability to respond to such a dramatic difference in tempo depends greatly on the freedom they have to act on their goals. They may have to drop specific elements of the feature or reduce its performance to get the feature delivered in time. They may not be able to deliver the product on all the platforms that the product supports, or the user interface and documentation may not be translated to all the languages they usually target. Perhaps the documentation will have to be very lightweight, and they will need to compensate with articles and tutorials that will be delivered at the company’s website after the release of the software. Perhaps they can deliver the feature exactly as originally proposed, but they will have to drop or compromise another feature. If the company’s processes are so rigid that they can’t tolerate these kinds of tradeoffs, delivering the feature by the required date simply may not be possible.

It is sometimes said in music that there’s no part that is too hard—there are only tempos that are too fast. This is indeed true. Yet even when musicians must stick to the script and play all the notes on the page, when the tempo is fast enough that they have difficulty with their parts, I encourage them and work with them, where necessary, to simplify the parts. Sometimes notes can be intentionally left out, or ghosted, a technique in which the note is only implied, not fully sounded. The difference to listeners may be negligible. Sometimes playing all the notes at a faster tempo can actually sound worse because the music becomes too dense or too heavyweight and loses the intended character. In these cases, simplifying the part is the right answer both technically and artistically. Thus, even when it appears that the rules may make it impossible to deliver on time, you may be able to make subtle but highly effective optimizations to turn an impossible task into a possible one.

In agile software development, much has been made of the timebox in which the end date of an iteration is fixed. This is an important concept because a large proportion of software projects are late in delivering. In a timebox, instead of moving a date to accommodate a deliverable, the deliverable—or, at least, the way in which it is implemented—must be altered. In music, as in most real-time activities, timeboxes are always in effect. In basketball, when mere seconds are left on the clock and a team is down by one point, the players don’t have the luxury of extending the available play time. By the way, this is one of the many reasons Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players ever. He won no less than 25 NBA games in the final moments of the game. In 24 of those games, he made his move in the final 10 seconds; the other was in the last 22 seconds. Eight of the game-winners were right on the buzzer (Mitchell 2001).

When a tempo is set for any given activity, it must take into account the goals of the activity, the abilities of the individual team members, and the flexibility of the processes that guide them. Self-organizing, agile individuals and teams can respond to unexpected tempos when they have the freedom to determine how they will achieve their goals.

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