Evoking the 70’s bumper sticker “A dog is for life, not just for Christmas“, I suggested in my last post that
Agreement is not just for the kick-off meeting
Let’s extend that thought to the first group of Kanban’s values. What if we positioned understanding, agreement and respect not as initial conditions for a learning environment but as leadership disciplines expected of everyone who has responsibility immediately around it?
Putting Kanban to one side, what would your Agile implementation or other significant change initiative have looked like had there had been sustained outside commitment to the following principles:
1. Understanding is a prerequisite for effective change
- Change will be based on an understanding of genuine problems or opportunities, framed such that upsides and downsides can reasonably be demonstrated and managed
- Change increments will be sized according to our understanding, safety never compromised (recalling J curves, bet-the-company bravado and so on)
2. Agreement will not be taken for granted
3. Respect is a key test
- Each change will be conducted respectfully
- Collectively, change will
- remove sources of frustration and other barriers to success
- raise levels of trust and safety
- create the space for creativity and excellence
What if the “skin” of your “culture bubble” was made up of a group of people who are committed to using their authority to represent and defend those three values? What effect would that have, both on the team and on the wider organisation? Rather than those inside the bubble, perhaps it is this group that should be our first concern?
If not our first concern, then at least a different concern. A focus on leadership discipline at the boundary that promotes change inside in the direction we want (including but not limited to customer focus, flow and leadership), sustained internally by the drive of the more practice-focussed values of transparency, balance and collaboration.
It strikes me that this formulation (a minor refinement to the model I presented in Chicago) begins to tackle two common misgivings around Agile and Lean.
Misgiving #1: Hierarchy vs collaboration
This misgiving is most commonly associated with Lean, although similar misgivings are sometimes expressed about Agile, in particular around the Scrum roles. How can an apparently hierarchical management system be reconciled with a culture of collaboration?
Let’s be clear about one thing: I have no interest whatsoever in replicating a shop-floor management hierarchy with its team leads, supervisors and so on. But what about leaders already at the periphery of the change initiative? If they’re expecting to see understanding, agreement, and respect and have learned to live those values themselves, won’t that have an effect? I see this expectation catalysing creative collaboration inside the boundary and facilitating collaborative problem-solving across it (thereby growing the initiative’s scope). Doesn’t this give a good picture what the effective leader (or manager) as coach looks like?
To further illustrate the potential for de-emphasising hierarchy, let’s see less of this (me, 2012):
and more of this (me, 2013):
Perhaps hierarchy is like iteration – just as it’s interesting and useful to see how far we can take these ideas (many people now assuming that they’re axiomatic to Lean and Agile respectively), it’s also interesting and useful to describe and explore universes that don’t depend on them quite so fundamentally.
Misgiving #2: The “mindset get-out clause”
I have long wished to challenge those who say that Agile can’t work here because the organisational mindset is wrong (or that Lean failed for the same reason). I find this chicken-and-egg excuse hard enough to swallow when expressed with genuine regret; when it’s accompanied by disrespect (of which “pigs and chickens” is but a mild form) I despair!
If we’re agreed that an incremental, evolutionary approach makes sense both for product development and process improvement, wouldn’t it make sense to approach mindset and culture in the same way? With some kind of plan of attack maybe?
Here’s my starting approach in two steps:
- Find the skin of the bubble: I’ve learned the hard way that improvement that isn’t end-to-end is often futile; reaching out upstream and downstream is therefore essential. It’s also natural for me to reach out (or up, if you like) to managers – I was one myself and I have no difficulty in identifying with them.
- Speak there the language of values: Don’t just gain an understanding of the problem for yourself; insist that shared understanding and agreement are essential, that respect is both a means and an end, and that their discipline as leaders will be critical not only to initial wins but to lasting success. Then explore the other values as you seek alignment between external and internal goals. Balance was for example a key theme of the early part of my last engagement, moving later into transparency and customer focus.
Real life is of course a little messier than I’ve described but I’m glad to have crystallised much of what I’ve been doing over the past few months.
Joshua Kerievsky for broadening my understanding of “safety” (see #techsafety) and Liz Keogh for “respect is a test”, both at #LKNA13; Michael Sahota for “culture bubbles”; Steven J Spear whose book The High Velocity Edge (mentioned here) is still exerting its influence.
I’m grateful also to Jim Sutton and Martin Burns for feedback on earlier drafts of this article.