Kanban and conversations seem to be a hot topic recently. Jared Richardson with Pillar Technology had a nice post last week to remind us that a key to Agile is individuals and interactions over processes and tools. The next day, I had a twitter conversation with @paul_boos about how Kanban can facilitate these conversations. Pascal Pinck published a nice post that summarized our email exchange on the role that Kanban plays in influencing conversations and relational flow. Finally, @ronjeffries had this tweet on Friday,
“@alshalloway almost all well-coached "agile style" methods work consistently. at base i think it’s because [wise] inspect and adapt works.”
This recent flurry of activity confirms the core basis of my focus on Project Conversations for the last decade – Getting better at software product development is about getting better at the right conversations.
Knowledge work projects require inspect and adapt by everyone on the team. And not just inspect and adapt on the software we are delivering. We have to Inspect and adapt around every aspect of the project like; the technology we are are applying, the processes we use to perform the work, what our customers want, how people work together, and how we gain a better understanding of the delivery of business value.
Inspect and adapt takes place through conversation. Conversation is the use of language to exchange thoughts, ideas, and information. Knowledge work projects, like software product development, are performed through conversation. The three primary things we need to converse about to accomplish a project are Understanding, Forming, and Doing.
Understanding conversations include:
- conversations about the purpose, goals and targets of the project;
- sharing and resolving concerns about the nature and direction of the project;
- investigating the background, risks, and current conditions surrounding the project;
- and analysis of ways to achieve the goals and targets.
Forming conversations include:
- establishing or ascertaining the enrollment of stakeholders on the project;
- exploring and evolving situation specific solutions to achieve the goals of the project;
- planning the activities and responsibilities required to implement the solutions;
- and coordinating the flow of activities.
Doing conversations include:
- assuring the team or promising to stakeholders to work toward accomplishing something;
- communicating the status of our ability to meet the promises of our work;
- declaring something complete and accepting that something is completed.
Think about the flow of conversations through a project. Then apply Lean values to this flow of conversation: Reduce Waste, Improve Flow, and Reduce Unreasonableness. Not having the right conversations in the right order at the right time leads to challenges on the project. For example, you can’t make a promise on doing something until you have had appropriate understanding and forming conversations. This will lead to waste in the form of rework (not to be confused with iteration) and it is unreasonable to expect people to make promises without having already addressed understanding and forming.
You also can’t have some conversations too early in the project. By the time the team gets around to applying an early understanding or forming conversation to a doing conversation, it is likely that what was learned in the understanding or forming conversation is outdated. This is waste in the form of excessive ideas in process which lose value with excessive waiting – waste that reduces flow and leads to unreasonableness in the project.
Gordon Pask, whom the Pask Award is named after, developed Conversation Theory. One of the key ideas in conversation theory is how our internal conversations and way we are participating impact the way we make meaning in a conversation. We create barriers to conversation flow when we aren’t paying attention or when we hold other participants in an unflattering light. For example, I have seen teams that will reject all input from the project manager assigned to support the project because of the feeling the project manager is meddling – she isn’t view as a part of their team.
One of the things that I find frustrating in the “we need better communications” solutions offered to many teams is the lack of pragmatic application. Improving conversation flow is a pragmatic way to deliver on better communications. A solution to improving conversation flow has to meet three criteria. First, create an environment for effective conversation. Second, scale that environment beyond the small team to larger programs, even to the enterprise. Third, clearly couple conversation flow with the flow of work. Kanban (or as @ronjeffries points out, potentially any wise implementation of inspect and adapt) helps address these aspects of conversations flow. Kanban’s daily standup and the after meetings is an approach that accomplishes all three criteria to establish effective conversation flow.
The Daily Standup and the After Meetings
In the Daily Standup the focus is on the work. So we don’t ask every person the three questions – we talk about the work. By walking the board right to left the team identifies blocks, next steps that need to be coordinated, and other opportunities for conversations. We have someone scribe the conversations that need to take place – trying to keep our focus on just those conversations that need to take place to improve the flow of work. I like to use a white board at the back of the room to list these conversations during the daily stand-up. Then have everyone bring access to their calendar to these meetings. The team takes responsibility for either having the conversation in an after-meeting, putting the conversation on their calendar, or setting up time to have the conversations. As conversations are performed or scheduled they are erased from the white board at the back of the room. Within a few minutes following the after meeting the list of meetings have been erased and the team is back at work – having optimized the conversation flow in the context of the work flow.
So Kanban helps deliver on all three criteria. First, Kanban helps us hold each other in a appropriate light – the focus on the system and the work in the system changes the way we participate. Holding each other in the light of a common interest with a clear outcome in mind results in an environment for effective conversation. Second, the Kanban board itself scales horizontally beyond the small team up stream and down stream – as well vertically up to the program and portfolio level. Third, Kanban helps with the flow of conversations by helping make it clear when we need have each conversation in the context of the current work in progress.
Kanban helps us get better at software product development by helping us get better at the right conversations. Combining the visualization of work provided by the Kanban board with a Daily Standup and the After Meetings that are focused on the work – and not on individuals – are a pragmatic way get better at the right conversations.