The Negative Split


Many times throughout your life you will find opportunities where the knowledge you gain from one discipline can be applied to another discipline. One of the reasons I try to maintain so many interests is so that I can learn new perspectives that may one day help me in ways I could have never anticipated. When I began training for triathlons, I didn’t realize how much I would be able to utilize the techniques I learned in triathlon in other aspects of my life. However, the negative split is one such technique that I have been able to cross-apply to product development in a very useful way.

When I first began to run long distances, I encountered a lot of burnout. Each lap would be slower than the last and as I reached the end of the run it was all I could do just to keep moving. My energy and enthusiasm was burning away far too quickly.

A split is calculated by taking the time for the current lap and subtracting the the duration of the previous lap. With each lap my splits would become more and more positive. I was running as hard as I could but moving slower and slower with each step. I would sprint through the first miles of a workout only to find myself barely walking the final mile.

I was burning out. It was becoming impossible to estimate my performance over long distance because there was no consistency.

If I was going to finish a race with a decent pace I would need to employee some new techniques. This is when I found the negative split.

I began to focus not on exerting as much energy as I could at all times, but rather on making sure that each lap contained more effort than the previous. I would need to be more reserved and thoughtful at the beginning of my workouts. Instead of pushing my body to its limits I was focused on holding back just enough so that I would have more to give.

Eventually I was able to control the pace of my runs and break myself of sprinting to death. Enforcing the negative split in my workouts had allowed me to find a pace that made sense for long distances.

My past was also full of half-finished projects and just-started ventures. There were so many times when I had rushed with enthusiasm into a new project only to leave so many others in the dust. I would work tirelessly on projects energized with the spark of a new idea. But inevitably my enthusiasm would burn away. Each week I would produce less and less.

I was burning out. It was impossible to estimate completion of a project because there was no pacing or cadence to my work.

If my work was broken down into laps it was clear that my projects were facing the same problems that my runs had faced. I was creating a positive split in my work effort as I threw my full effort into each new project leaving no room for growth.

Incorporating a negative split into my new projects has helped to slow burnout and keep projects alive. For new projects, I try to always take a calculated and slow approach, making sure that I have more effort to apply with each successive iteration.

Being consumed by a new product idea or new project was hurting my productivity. With the negative split I not only finish more projects, but I’ve also been able to really understand what my pace should be. It took me some time to understand the limits of my time and those limits continually change, but pacing and focusing on negative splits will always help me to recalibrate.

These same patterns can be seen across product development organizations. New projects and products can gobble up resources and focus for companies. Teams become frustrated and overworked, older products wither, and flow of work is difficult to predict.

The negative split can be used to help pace product work. By starting with minimal effort, the team can slowly increase with each iteration. This might mean increasing the size of the team over time, increasing the number of tickets completed in each iteration, increasing the funding for a particular project, or slowly ramping up traffic to a service. The goal is to decrease the possibity of burnout and to also maintain a steady pace that allows you to keep all of your products and projects in order.