How Kanban Saved Agile

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For my working definition of Kanban, please refer to my previous article 14 Things Every Agilist Should Know About Kanban (this contains links to the Kanban body of knowledge, including Essential Kanban Condensed by David J. Anderson and Andy Carmichael).

For my working definition of Agile, please refer to The Manifesto for Agile Software Development.

In reality, Kanban isn’t actually saving Agile nor is it intended to, nor is any thoughtful and responsible Kanban practitioner motivated by this agenda. What I’m really trying to convey is how human thinking about the business of professional services (including software development) has evolved since “Agile” as many of us know it was conceived around 20 or so years ago. The manifesto is the collective statement of a group of software development thought leaders that captured some of their ideas at the time about how the software industry needed to improve. Essentially, it was about the iterative and incremental delivery of high-quality software products. For 2001, this was pretty heady stuff. You could even say that it spawned a movement.

Since the publication of the manifesto in 2001, a lot of other people have had a lot of other good ideas about how the business of delivering professional services can improve. This has been well documented in well known sources too numerous to mention for the scope of this article.

Substantial contributions to the discourse have been generated by and through the LeanKanban community. The aim of Kanban is to foster environments in which knowledge workers can thrive and create innovative, valuable and viable solutions for improving the world. Kanban has three agendas: survivability (primarily but not exclusively for the business executives), service-orientation (primarily but not exclusively for managers) and sustainability (primarily but not exclusively for knowledge workers). Kanban provides pragmatic, actionable, evidence-based guidance for improving along these three agendas.

Evolutionary Theory is one of the key conceptual underpinnings of the Kanban Method, most notably the dynamic of punctuated equilibrium. Evolution is natural, perpetual and fundamental to life. Long periods of equilibrium are punctuated by relatively short periods of “transformation”—apparent total and irreversible change. An extinction event is a kind of punctuation, so too is the rapid explosion of new forms. Evolutionary theory is not only a scientifically proven body of knowledge for understanding the nature of life. It can be also applied to the way we think about ideas, methods and movements.

For example, science has more or less established that the extinction of the dinosaurs, triggered by a meteor impact and subsequent dramatic atmospheric and climate change, was in fact a key punctuation point in the evolution of birds. In other words, dinosaurs didn’t become extinct, rather they evolved into birds. That is, something along the lines of the small dinosaurs with large feathers hanging around after Armageddon learned to fly over generations in order to escape predators, find food and raise their young. Dinosaurs evolved into birds. Birds saved the dinosaurs.

There has been a lot of social media chatter and buzz lately about how Agile is dead. It is a movement that has run its course, or so the narrative goes. After all, 20 years is more or less the established pattern for the rise and fall of management fads. But too much emphasis on the rise and fall of fads can blind us to larger, broader (deeper) over-arching trends.

The agile movement historically has been about high-performing teams. More recently, market demand has lead to the profusion of “scaling” approaches and frameworks. Scaling emerged out of the reality of systemic interdependence in which most Agile teams find themselves. Most agile teams are responsible for aspects of workflows—stages of value creation—as contributors to the delivery of a service or multiple services. Agile teams capable of independently taking requests directly from and delivering directly to customers are extremely rare. For the rest, classical Agile or Scrum is not enough. The feathers just aren’t big enough. Agile teams attempting to function independently (pure Scrum) in an interdependent environment are vulnerable to the antibodies of the system, especially when such interdependencies are merely denounced as impediments to agility.

Some organizations find themselves in a state of evolutionary punctuation (the proverbial sky is falling) that can trigger rapid adaptations and the emergence of local conditions in which independent service delivery teams can thrive. Most large, established organizations seem to be more or less in a state of equilibrium. Whether real or imagined, this is what change agents have to work with. However, more often than not, the typical Agile change agent seems adamant that the sky is always falling and that everyone accepting that the sky is falling is the first step to real and meaningful change. This is not an attitude held by Agile change agents alone. This is a standard feature of traditional 20th Century change management methods, the key selling point for change management consulting.

Naturally, most self-identifying “Agilists” see themselves as change agents. Many of them find themselves in the position of change management consultants. But the motivation for change can quickly become misaligned: Change needs to happen in order for Agile to work. If you are passionate about Agile, you will seek to bring about the environmental changes that will allow for Agile to thrive. We don’t need to follow this path too far until Agile becomes an end in itself. It is understandable then that for some, Agile appears to be a dead end, or just dead.

But if there is a larger, over-arching historical process playing out, what might that be? Perhaps it has something to do with the evolution of human organization. Perhaps we are living in a period of punctuation.



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Team Experience – A Team of Coaches and Trainers

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Two weeks ago I joined a temporary team of Scrum Alliance Certified Scrum Trainers and Certified Enterprise Coaches.  It was a fabulous experience and I hope that I will be able to do it again sometime soon.  We worked together to build real valuable results for the rest of the Scrum ecosystem including reference training modules and in-depth website content, feedback for Scrum Alliance programs, and even some fun videos.

Brock Argue was one of the CECs there, and he has written a great summary of how it felt: The Art of Teaming Part 1.  One cool point he makes:

Introductions were friendly and helpful and as we started getting into the work things heated up…. I got frustrated with the direction of the conversation and I grew impatient with the lack of progress we were making. I’m sure other team members were experiencing similar feelings, and as coaches we understand how difficult team formation can be. Imagine how unsettling this is for a team who isn’t aware of these group growth stages; that they’re unavoidable and healthy to experience.

The stages Brock is referring to are the stages of team development as described by Tuckman: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing (and sometimes Adjourning is added on).

Thanks to Robin Dymond, Mark Levison who organized the event and Shannon Carter from the Scrum Alliance who supported the event with her personal presence.

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Using “Status” in Agile Coaching & Training

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Recently after attending a Scrum Alliance webinar on “Best Practices in Coaching,” I was reminded of my experiences teaching Acting students at university, and how I used changing status to help them achieve their best.

Status refers to the position or rank of someone within a particular group or community. I believe it was Canadian Keith Johnstone who introduced the idea of “playing status” to theatre improv teams. It is used to create relationships between characters onstage, and to change those relationships to move a story forward.

Status can be indicated through position, posture, facial expression, voice and clothing. It is a fascinating tool for any trainer or coach to use.

At the beginning of a semester with new students, I would invite them to sit on the stage floor in a circle with me. I would welcome them, discuss my expectations of their learning, and tell them what they could expect from me. We’d go over the course syllabus and I’d answer questions. I purposefully put myself in an equal status to them, as a way of earning their trust, because the processes of acting* requires huge amounts of trust. I also wanted to establish a degree of respect in them for the stage by all of us being in a “humble” position on the stage floor.

However, when I would introduce a new exercise to them that required them to go beyond their comfort zones, I would deliver instructions from a standing position while they were seated. By elevating my status, I conveyed the importance of the exercise, and it was a signal that it was not something they could opt out of. In this way, I could help them to exercise their creativity to a greater extent.

Another way I encouraged my students to take risks was to take risks myself. Sometimes I would illustrate an acting exercise by doing it myself first. For those few minutes I became a colleague with my students, one of them, equal in status. If I could “make a fool of myself” (which is how it may look to an outsider), then they could too.

I had one student who had great potential, but who took on the role of class clown and would not give it up. He fought against going deeper and getting real. One day in an exercise where they had to “own” a line of dialogue, I had him in a chair onstage, while I and the rest of the students were seated. He had to repeat the line of text until it resonated with him and became real. After some minutes, nothing was changing in him. In desperation had him turn his chair around so his back was to us. I then indicated to the other students to quietly leave the room. He could hear something happening but was confused about it. He was not able to turn around and look.

When I allowed him to turn around it was only him and me left in the theatre. I had him go through the repetition exercise again. Without an audience, and with me still seated, he finally broke through the wall he had erected and connected with the line of text from his inner self. It was a wonderful moment of truth and vulnerability. I then allowed the other students back in, and had him find that connection again with the students there. He was able to do it.

He is grateful to me to this day for helping him get beyond his comfortable role as clown to become a serious actor.

When training or coaching, it seems to me there can be huge value in playing with status. Sometimes taking a lower status, an equal status, or a higher status, can move a team or upper management into discovering whatever may have been blocking the process. Again, there are many ways to indicate status and even a status change to effect progress.

In his book, “Improv-ing Agile Teams,” Paul Goddard makes some important observations about using status. He writes: “Even though status is far less obvious than what is portrayed on stage, individuals still can take small steps to encourage status changes within their own team. For example, asking a team member who exhibits lower status behaviours to take ownership of a meeting or oversee a process not only boosts that person’s confidence but also increases status among peers…these subtle actions can help make lower-status team members feel more comfortable when expressing new ideas or exposing hidden problems.”

A colleague reminded me of a 1975 publication called “Power: How to Get It, How to Use It,” in which author Michael Korda gives advice about facial expression, stance, clothing and innumerable ways to express “power.” The idea of using status in the context I’m writing about is not about gaining power, but about finding ways through one’s own status changes to help unlock the capacity and potential of others.

How can a coach use status to help someone in management who is blocking change? Is someone on a team not accepting what others have to offer because s/he is keeping his/her status high? Is a Scrum Master necessarily a high-status team member, or rather a servant to the team (low status)?

I am curious if any coaches or trainers out there have used status in a way that created growth and change.

*Good acting is a matter of the actor finding the truth in oneself as it relates to the character he or she is playing. It requires vulnerability and courage to step out of one’s known persona and take on another as truthfully as possible. Inherent truthfulness also applies to work in any other endeavour.

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