Establish a Predictable Cadence

4 minutes, 6 links


Updated March 23, 2023

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An organization’s cadence is the rhythm created by defining periods of planning and periods of execution.

Developing a work cadence—one that is specific to a team, and that uses explicitly defined work practices—is important in enabling distributed teams to make work more predictable. When teams define a rhythm, the next beat is known, and everyone can play on-tempo.

What cadence you choose is highly dependent on the context of the team, and arriving at the right one will take some experimentation. Below are a few things to keep in mind as you choose what works for your company or team.

Planning vs. Execution Time Periods

Organizations usually define and revise their strategy over longer periods of time than those in which they execute their chosen strategy. Your communication approach may also vary during different periods. For instance, planning periods typically require more synchronous conversations to align everyone.

Distinct time periods for planning vs. execution are valuable because they help teams and individuals organize themselves around the pending work. There’s a planning period, a focused working period, and a subsequent conclusion that can be used for self-reflection to continuously improve as a team.

importantConsider using longer periods of time for strategic planning—perhaps yearly objectives that are broken into either halves or quarters, so that the plan doesn’t change too quickly. If you choose a period that is too short, your team may lack the necessary time to focus on getting work done. And if it’s too long, the company’s ability to act on strategic or market changes will be impacted. Execution best happens over shorter time periods to allow for focused work to get done.

GitLab has documented their entire cadence, from a 30-year strategy down to annual and quarterly planning, and how execution happens daily.

Cadence Varies by Team

You can consider aligning your company or departments all to a similar cadence, depending on their size. Keeping track of two or three is much easier than ten, and too many teams operating at different rhythms leads to a feeling of uncertainty regarding whether you’re really on track—past a certain group size, you can’t really know who started what when. Teams don’t even need to use the exact same periods, as long as there is some alignment. For example, all teams can have their planning period on Mondays, but some can use one week as a cycle, and others, two weeks. This allows everyone to know “what time it is” for any given team, instead of wondering when a plan needs to be revised, or when the last planning period’s conclusions will be drawn.

These cadence periods, or iterations, derive from agile software development practices, which were developed by software teams for the purpose of adapting more rapidly to new information as they released new software or features to customers. Teams outside of software have found success using similar methodologies, even if their work is less planning intensive. Instead of planning, teams with longer cadences (like product teams) can replace these with team syncs where members know they’ll have the opportunity to have discussions and conversations about how work is progressing. For example, Basecamp teams work in six-week cycles.

Teams that are responsible for customer support or other high-touch activities may find that their work can’t even be planned a week in advance. For these cases, teams can use methodologies like kanban that allow them to quickly reprioritize and handle the influx of work, while still establishing a longer time period to reflect, spend some time together at the beginning and end, and monitor their progress.

Whatever cadence you or your teams choose, make sure it is documented, so everyone is aware of their goals and how they are expected to work towards them.

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