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How Kanban Can Support Evolutionary Change

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Evolutionary change is about starting where you are and improving one small change at a time. You need a stressor, a reflection mechanism, and an act of leadership to provoke change and institutionalize it. Understanding empathy allows change agents to find out what resonates with someone and work around resistance.

The first version of the Kanban Maturity Model was released in 2018; InfoQ did a Q&A on the book Kanban Maturity Model. Version 1.2 of the Kanban Maturity Model has been released in October 2020; the updates provide information about values that help succeed agile initiatives and transformations, ideas to prevent culture from going back in organizations, and insights on the human condition and understanding empathy.

David Anderson describes the evolutionary theory as "one mutation at a time." Evolution happens because a solution is chosen, or selected, from a set of alternatives.

According to Anderson, if something is fit for its purpose and fit for the environment, then it will be selected again and again; it will survive and thrive. Evolutionary theory tells us that progress is made in punctuated-equilibrium:

We observe that organizations become settled with a certain behavior that reflects a level of organizational maturity. To improve, we need to disrupt that equilibrium, to make it uncomfortable for them, and then advise or coach them on how to consolidate improvements to establish a new settled equilibrium at a deeper level of maturity.

To provoke changes in selection criteria, you need to introduce stress into the environment, Anderson argues. You need to be able to reflect on the stress and its impact and how it changes fitness and selection, and then you need to take action to change behavior; to change what is being selected.

Understanding what motivates an individual’s behavior and actions is essential for progressing organizational change, according to Teodora Bozheva:

Actions are the answer of an individual who intends to meet their objectives in certain circumstances. Therefore, understanding the context in which people work, what they do and not do, what kind of difficulties they meet to accomplish their objectives, and how they feel doing their job, helps defining appropriate actions for the organization fostering individuals’ engagement in them.

InfoQ interviewed David Anderson and Teodora Bozheva about evolutionary change.

InfoQ: How can understanding empathy help to foster change, and what can we do to increase our understanding?

David Anderson: The dictionary meaning of empathy, "The ability to understand and share the feelings of another", is inadequate. It can be mistaken for sympathy and pity. Sympathy and pity are low maturity behaviors. True empathy is the ability to walk in someone else´s shoes, to see as they see, feel as they feel, to understand the world as the other person understands it. We do not pity that person, we view them as dignified, as having self-esteem, and a self-image, a place in the world, a contribution to make.

True empathy gives an understanding of behavior and allows a change agent to understand what will resonate with someone, what will be readily accepted, and what will not, and furthermore, why things will be resisted. When we have true empathy, we can anticipate resistance to change and work around it.

InfoQ: Does the new Kanban Maturity model provide insights into the human condition? Can you elaborate on this, on what you have learned?

Teodora Bozheva: The new model shares insights that organizations that already use Kanban Maturity Model (KMM) have come to. Most of them had run Agile initiatives before becoming familiar with KMM and they were strongly focused on creating teams, making people feel confident, happy, and proud of working with their teammates. Understanding the path that KMM draws in front of them helped them realize that developing further the capabilities of the entire organization was also improving the human condition. More precisely, individuals were seeing themselves as more accomplished professionals, capable of leading multiple teams and divisions, dealing with different internal and external factors that affect their services, and successfully managing more complex situations. They aspire to develop their skills and maturity together with developing the human condition of their colleagues. The actions these people take develop real improvement in their organizations.

Anderson: The KMM and the Evolutionary Change Model are designed to be compatible with the human condition. Understanding the neuroscience of the brain and how humans perceive the world around them and their place in it is not new. Some of these ideas are 2500 years old, from Greek philosophy. What is relatively recent is the neuroscience that shows that Plato and Aristotle had remarkably accurate insights into the human condition.

Merging the work of Plato and his student Aristotle, we can say that the human soul has spirit, desire (or appetite), reason, and a need for purpose. The first three map directly to the architecture of the brain and there is a control hierarchy or priority. To motivate change we need to address the needs of each aspect of the human soul. We’ve built all of those concepts into our coaching model for KMM.

InfoQ: How can Kanban be an evolutionary path to agility?

Anderson: The three elements of evolutionary change in organizations are:

1. A stressor

2. A reflection mechanism

3. An act of leadership

The Kanban Method provides the stressors and the reflection mechanisms and has enough variety of practice implementation to do this at each of the maturity levels. To provoke acts of leadership, people need to be held accountable. Accountability means responsibility for an outcome. KMM focuses on outcomes; this is core to the model. In addition, we use the cultural values of the KMM to create an organizational culture that encourages and enables leadership at all levels.

InfoQ: What can be done in agile initiatives to make change sustainable and prevent culture changes from going back in organizations?

Bozheva: The culture of an organization can be seen as a combination of people’s values, behaviors, and interactions. The outcome of an organizational initiative is the effect of the combination of the culture and the actions taken by the company.

Anderson: The word you are looking for is "institutionalization". What does it take to institutionalize change so that it sticks so that it outlives the current management and the current staff? It lies in individuals, and groups, in their sense of self, and sense of identity. Changes need to become part of who we are, why we exist, what we do, and how we do them. Changes need to be pulled by the people and embraced by the organization as a social group, whether that is a team, a department, a product unit, a business unit, or the entire business.

Institutionalization happens naturally as a side-effect of evolutionary change. The problem with traditional change initiatives is that they are designed and managed; they are not evolutionary. Change is something inflicted upon the people, not pulled by them. The Kanban Method together with the Kanban Maturity Model codifies the means to create institutionalized change.

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