How Kanban Saved Agile

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.