Rhythm as Urgency: The R in RAMPS

Part 3 of 15 in the series RAMPS

Rhythm is the R in RAMPS. Let’s take a look.

Rhythm is about tension & release. It is the sense one has of readying, girding, coiling, then taking that stored energy & sending it out.

We’ll get to music in a second, tho maybe in a way that will surprise you. But let’s start with some non-musical kinds of tension & release. A spring is stretched, creating tension, then let go of, creating release. Your movement is your muscle cells in rhythm: they get fat and short, storing potential energy, then thin & long as they let go of it. A bow and arrow works identically: you pull the string to store energy, let go of the string and the store goes out to the world.

Some nearby words: expansion & compression, coil and strike, build & peak, the list is long.

Now we come to music. A first reaction to the word ‘rhythm’ in music is to associate it primarily with what musicians call ‘meter’. Meter is just the thump thump thump of the beat, whether explicit or implicit in the performed song.

But to think that’s the only example of what we’re talking about is to grossly limit your understanding of rhythm as motivator & music both. Music is arguably music because of the sheer variety & multiplicity of the tension-release cycles that go on inside it.

When you hear a verse and a chorus and a verse and a chorus, notice that the verse is usually different & the chorus is same-ish. The verse builds tension — anticipation that the chorus is coming — and the chorus resolves that tension. Rhythm.

If you listen closely to great performers work your well-known songs, you’ll notice how often they leave the melody. They rise above or below, they trill around, they add fillips: they are creating the tension in you that they’re coming back. Rhythm.

And of course, there’s actual rhythm. Sophisticated drum lines walk away from or elaborate on meter, reaching climactic moments on return. I could easily go on all day about musical forms of this. I will spare you, in one of my occasional bouts of beneficence.

What rhythms, cycles of tension & release, do the individuals on your teams feel, and how do they relate to urgency?

There are myriad rhythms in geekery. As in music, there’s usually major & minor beats, phrases and measures. These come quickest to mind: the daily standups, if you’re doing that. The weekly retros and, if you’re doing it, planning sessions. All of these form a beat.

But there are many more. Refactoring, green to green code-changes, provides wonderful tension+relief in tiny little doses. All of the steps of TDD are like this. We briefly perturb the system, sending it into imbalance, then we hit the closing keystroke: TA-DAH! The cycles I use to push code, easy in my case, harder in many VBCA shops, are themselves little rhythms.

Obviously, every software release is a release in this sense, too. OR SHOULD BE. Hmmm. There’s a clue.

One kind of tension & release is taking a deep breath, holding it, and then exhaling. Let me ask you a question: how long can you hold your breath? And when you hold your breath a long time, does that first gasping out instantly restore you to normalcy? Another clue.

On the one hand, the longer you build tension before release, the more powerful the force. Cool. But incomplete. Because on the other hand, the longer you hold it, the harder it gets, and the slower your recovery — the greater your need for respite. (in the nervous system, this is called the refractory period. The time required between one tensioning before the next can happen.)

We started w/the concern about a lack of a sense of urgency. Do you see that a sense of urgency is exactly what the tension-building makes? It’s our anticipation of the resolution, the release, that provides us with the primary motivation for coiling in the first place.

I almost always want to ask an urgency-lacking manager: how long since the last tonic? How long have we spent in refractory? Recall that most of the time the manager’s asking me this are already in deep shit. It’s not the sort of question one asks, otherwise.

The odds are good that a) it’s been forever since the tonic, and b) the refractory time is at zero because of it.

The first thing you need to do when you see your team lacks urgency is to look very hard at what you are now and have been asking of them.

To get to urgency, you have to have a normalcy from which to depart. A team lacking the one nearly always lacks the other. So the biggest thing you can do to create urgency is to refuse to demand it until the team has recovered its normalcy.

That’s a big one, and I know it’s hard. It consists of telling people — usually above you — that the answer is no. No. You can’t have it 10/1. No. You can’t add that in, too. No. You can’t ask for a stretch goal from a team that isn’t meeting normal ones. Yikes. But if you want a team that can pull off a dramatic rise to the occasion now and again, you have to do this.

What about at a lower level? Are there things we can do there? Yes, of course.

A substantial building of tension can be thought of as many smaller cycles. The smaller cycle raises tension, then releases some of it. I might encourage the team for this very reason to adopt the many so-called "continuous" aspects of the agile technical set.

Microtests take minutes to write and pass. When they go green, they release a little tension, but not all of it: the story isn’t done yet. Refactoring green to green is a kind of globally neutral process. It builds & releases. It’s very soothing for most people, and though it produces no new feature in the instant, it actually makes the production of new features easier. A good normalcy to have!

Every actual release to the field is certainly a release of tension also. Could we release to the field far more often? Every commit to head — your geeks know what this means even if you don’t — is similar in effect.

You can think of it this way: experiencing tension & release & maximizing their effect is a skill. Skills need practice. all of the step-wise work your team does gives them that practice. Some of it, because it’s only partial, also builds towards the climax.

One more piece of advice before I pause for release.

Looking away from the problem is a form of release AND a form of tensioning at the very same time. When I hit a local climax: back to green let’s say, and I take a walk around the block, or add a move to the team game, or whatever, I am releasing local tension. But only local. My mind is usually still chugging away on the next larger tension i’m in.

It’s important not to confuse urgency with busy-ness. The amount of time I spend staring at a screen is decidedly not a valid measure. Neither is the number of hours i’m in the building. Neither is the frequency with which I scowl and look very serious. (In my admittedly special case, just the opposite, actually.)

Help your team develop its own rhythms. Help them create refractory periods: stretches of normalcy. Help them ramp tension by stepping, and intermix partial-release stepping like pushing code with neutral stepping like refactoring. If you’re asking me about urgency, you’re dug into a deep hole. It will take you time — and rhythm — to dig out of it.

Just as you need to give your team normalcy, refraction, ramping, you need to do the same for yourself. Investigate rhythm by looking around you and noticing all the cycles in the daily life of your individuals. Watch how they respond as individuals to each kind of cycle. Strengthen the reactions you like. Share them with other teammates.

Rhythm is to some extent the most technical of the forces we’ve talked about in rhythm. This will require some thought and delicacy. Urgency is fundamentally about tension and release, and any investment you make in rhythm will pay off mightily in team energy. Have at it!

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