Research and Development (R&D) is an endurance event. It is not a sprint. Innovation does takes time but cannot take so much time as to miss market windows. You need to pace yourself and your team. This is the only way to ensure consistent results. The common trap of we can work 80 hour work weeks and get it all done on time just does not work. Make no mistake. You will work hard but you will burn the team out if you constantly have insane project schedules.
Pace is important because it sets the cadence of the group. A sense of urgency should always be in the air but never a sense of panic. Panic is what slowly drives your people away and burns teams out. There will always be moments of panic. That is natural and unavoidable. The problem is when everyday is filled will panic. Not every problem is an emergency and not everything can be a number one priority.
You should be aggressive in your scheduling but realistic to the demands put on the group. Most technical people like a sense of urgency because it means that what they are doing is important. What they hate is a management team that puts their feet to the fire every waking moment. Teams need down time. They need to take a break every once and a while to refresh themselves and their skills. They also need time away from work so they don’t burn out. Working hard and working smart are not the same. When deadlines are unrealistic and people get pushed to the breaking point, they tend to work hard but not smart. You can see this by the amount of tasks not getting done while the number of hours being worked goes up. This is the first stage of team burn out. Once burn out sets in, it takes a long time to recover. Couple this with the pressure to meet deadlines and you will start to see your team unravel. Some will shutdown while others will leave. When the pace is brisk but not insane, your team will sense the urgency but will also know that what is expected of them is reasonable. When the team feels that schedules are aggressive but reasonable, they will strive to meet them. They will go the extra mile to ensure that they do whatever they can do get tasks done.
There will be a constant battle between management reality (I want it done faster) and team reality (we are working as hard as we can). Your job is to translate between the two and ensure that both sides understand the motivations of the other. Remember that the natural pace of the team will always dictate when things get done, no matter how well you schedule, how smart they work or how much management wants it done faster. It is your job to balance all of these factors to ensure that you take the time to not miss anything but hurry up so what you are creating is still relevant.
A Good Reference
Zen Habits has great content on how to get more out of life. This post is exactly I am talking about when it comes to pace. The author, Jeffrey Tang, has some wonderful advice on how not to burn out. Well written and right on.