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Agile and Music: Tempo

Is there a correlation between the speed of a song and Agile? I used to think the two concepts were unrelated but now I am able to see the connection.

Here is a quick challenge for you. Over the next 30 days, listen carefully to the number of times you hear the words rhythm, tempo, pulse, cadence, or flow when discussing Agile. I think that the result will surprise you.

In music, tempo appears to be an easy concept. A particular song is played at a specific speed or tempo (ex: 120 beats per minute or bpm) but there is so much more. Songs can have the same tempo but have completely different feels. For starters, you could have a song that is played with an emphasis on quarter notes (jazz), eighth notes (rock) or sixteenth notes (funk).1  It gets even more interesting when we start talking about swing and different time signatures, but my point is that tempo is a large concept that is more complex that meets the eye.

Josh Anderson (a former college football player and co-host of the Agile Meta-Cast) does a great job of talking about tempo and how it relates to football. He talks not only about the tempo in relationship to an individual football game, but to the weekly practice schedule, and the entire season. The podcast is 38 minutes long, well worth the investment, and can be found here.

We have talked about football and music, but how does this apply to Agile?

The first and most obvious is your iteration length. If we are using Scrum (or other methodology using defined iterations),2 there is a specific tempo (or cadence) in which we work. There could also be a specific cadence that we use for a release. Do you release every iteration (sprint) or do you release monthly, quarterly, etc.

A particular iteration isn’t really different that a section of a song. A song usually has sections that the listener is familiar with, such a verse or chorus. These sections are usually specific lengths (measured in bars) and traditionally grouped in multiples of four (ex: 4, 8, 16 bars). There are of course exceptions, but rarely do we switch outside of these groups (ex: you won’t find many 9 or 13 bar verses).

The songs section are also fairly standard (verse, chorus, verse, chorus, etc) and in a predicable pattern. This is done so the listener has some comfort. The same goes for Agile, we want our customers and teams to some degree of comfort and predictability as well. Obviously, in Agile (like music) there are unknowns and variations but the framework helps things from degrading into chaos and noise.

Finally, what about your Daily Stand Ups? The team meets at the same time and place each day to synchronize their work. To me this is an obvious place where cadence is demonstrated in Agile.

Listen over the next 30 days and let me know how many times you see the concepts of tempo applied or discussed during your implementation.


1 This is a very large generalization regarding the feel of various musical styles and does not apply 100%. Today there is a large blend of musical styles and influences, but I do feel that the analogy is useful.

2 Tempo is also important to Lean, Kanban, and Continuous Delivery but not as obvious when talking about sprints or iterations.

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