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Killing the Crunch Mode Antipattern - Chad Fowler

In the software industry, especially the startup world, Crunch Mode is a ubiquitous, unhealthy antipattern. Crunch Mode refers to periods of overtime work brought on by the need to meet a project deadline. Developers stereotypically glorify the ability and propensity to stay up all night grinding through a difficult problem. It’s part of our folklore. It’s part of how we’re measured. It’s something companies and leaders take advantage of in order to accomplish more with less.

And it’s stupid.

If you want a “knowledge worker” to be as ineffective and produce the lowest level of quality possible, deprive them of their sleep and hold them to an unrealistic deadline. In other words, activate Crunch Mode.

Why Not to Crunch?

The more you have to use your brain, the less effective and healthy Crunch Mode is. In fields that require less creativity and thought, it might even really work as a (ruthless) management technique. In software development, it just doesn’t.

Why do we do it?

The number one reason teams go into Crunch Mode is that their leaders have failed to understand and/or set realistic expectations for the time it takes to complete a project. In worst cases, the deadlines are arbitrarily set by management and not tied to any specific business need. In other cases, the deadlines are inflexible, but the scope can and should be adjusted to a realistic level. Sure, it may be that the team committed to those incorrect deadlines, but it’s up to the ones deciding on the deadlines to verify that they’re realistic before making a commitment.

Fear and the resulting breakdown of communication also drive us into Crunch Mode. “Can you get this done by ?” “Uh…yes?” Developers fear saying “no”. Managers fear looking bad by committing to what seem like far off dates. Managers fear setting far off deadlines, because developers miss dates more often than not. “If we pad the estimates are we going to miss those by 20% too?”

Another reason we go into Crunch Mode is that we are perpetuating a culture of cowboy heroism which many of us unwittingly get caught up in. The feeling of finishing tons of work in a short period and depriving oneself of quality personal time can be addicting, especially when it results in “saving the day” for a project. Rolling up your sleeves and cranking to the end of a deadline makes you feel valuable in a very concrete way. Without your overtime, the project doesn’t get done on time. With it, the project is saved. It’s hard to find such black and white ways to add value in daily “normal” work.

Maybe the most addictive feature of Crunch Mode is it’s the easiest way to see a team really click. At the beginning of Crunch Mode, people get intensely focused. Communication is streamlined. The big important stuff gets tackled quickly and finished. A team can initially raise its skill level a notch with the focus alone. It feels great as both a manager and a team member to work that efficiently and effectively. Unfortunately it’s difficult (not impossible) to work this way all the time, so we’re tempted to activate Crunch Mode on occasion just to feel this way again.

Alternatives to Crunch-Mode

As unhealthy, counterproductive, and just plain stupid as Crunch Mode is, sometimes you just have to do it. We all accept that. Crunch Mode is the nuclear option. A leader needs to have it available as a tool, but each time he or she wields this tool, he or she pays in long term credibility and trust.

Can we stop it?

It’s time to finally stop this insanity. Think of the time, money, energy, and potential happiness wasted on poor planning, communication, and leadership.

Managers, hold yourself accountable for Crunch Mode when it happens. See it as a personal failure.

Everyone else, hold yourself accountable for every non-crunch minute you work. Make them count. Overcommunicate. Focus.

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