Better ways of working

[First, previous, next in series]

This is the sixth of nine articles in a series exploring the matrix below (introduced here):

Screen Shot 2016-01-05 at 19.16.55

“Better ways of working” tops the middle column, at the intersection of “Discovery” and “Values-based change”.

The Agile manifesto begins with these words:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.

As we all know, the manifesto proceeds to outline a fundamental shift of priorities that help to separate Agile development from the slow, inflexible and process-heavy methods that preceded it.

I particularly like the open-endedness of “We are uncovering…” – no-one was trying to claim that the challenges of software development had all been addressed. It does however beg the question of what constitutes “better ways“. What’s the test? How do we know that any given “better way” is indeed an improvement over what we do now? If we aspire to more than the mediocrity that follows from merely copying other people’s solutions to other people’s problems, this is an important question.

Values certainly help. A change that aligns poorly with the manifesto, with Kanban’s values, or with the organisation’s own values should be called into question.

Drilling into the balance value in my book Kanban from the Inside, I suggest some additional tests:

Achieving a balance among the interests of different stakeholders—team members, customers, senior management, shareholders, even the wider community—can be especially challenging.

No-one has the capacity to weigh up the concerns of all of those stakeholders all of the time, but a practical policy does at least set the right tone: If a so-called improvement works at the expense of any of these groups, think again, try harder. If it feels like a zero-sum game is being played, beware. “Good for customers, for the organization, and for the people doing the work” strikes a better tone.

Improvements that don’t respect this rule often come unstuck. Customers have only limited tolerance for worsening products and services. Organizations can’t usually be expected to support changes unquestioningly, with no regard to their wider impact. People eventually walk away from worsening working environments; productivity, quality, and well being all decline in the meantime.

If you have a good idea of what fitness for purpose would feel like for each of those stakeholder groups, you can be even more specific: genuine improvements elevate fitness.

Discovering better ways of working

I’m currently reading Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the book that fifty years ago popularised the term “paradigm shift“. It describes the scientific process as one in which revolutions are rare, and most of the real work is much more mundane, devoted to incremental solutions to well-defined problems of theory, experimentation, engineering, or to articulation and socialisation.

Lean-Agile transformation is not so different. Lean and Agile bring new delivery paradigms that are still in the process of being fully embraced in the industry; it’s fair to say that this revolution is not yet complete, even if it does seem somewhat inevitable now. Lean/Kanban brings the complementary paradigm of evolutionary change, in which the organisation’s ability to change is seen as a crucial dimension of agility.

Not that these paradigms are especially difficult to explain – the harder task is to implement and then to sustain them! Accordingly, Agendashift is “opinionated” in the explicit integration of tools, mechanisms, and techniques that maintain the progress of change towards fitness, via better ways of working. Tools like the values-based delivery assessment, mechanisms for agreeing an agenda for change, and the formalism and process of hypothesis-driven change; these combine to help identify and prioritise opportunities for change and to frame and manage their respective solutions.

In the new year we’ll complete this series with three posts on Values-based leadership. Have a wonderful Christmas break meanwhile, and see you soon!

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