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Can Kanban help middle management ease into new ways of work?


26 Oct 2017 |

Can Kanban help middle management ease into new ways of work?

By Tinus Kruger – Agile Consultant, IQ Business

During the last few months, I worked closely with a colleague at a large financial institution, we had conversations about our observations and experience in the Agile transformation the organisation is undergoing.
One day on my way in, I started listening to an Agile Uprising podcast. It was a discussion on middle managers in an Agile environment, and there I was listening to it on the same day that we were at the receiving end of a middle manager who felt the need to remind us, somewhat forcefully, of the power and influence she has within the organisation.
After the episode, we spent quite some time talking about our thoughts on what had just happened. We seemed to agree that most of the resistance organisations experience during Agile transformations is most likely due to the middle management group fighting against the change.

One has to take a step back and wonder why this happens. Why do they behave in this way?

Do middle managers see themselves going onto the Organisational Endangered Species list?

They probably do face much more ambiguity about their future in the organisation than ever before. Lack of communication or lack of transparency may have contributed to this. If people are left out of the loop, they don’t know why things are changing, or what the plan is, so it’s merely a knee-jerk human nature reaction to become defensive and push against changes heading their way.

Most of the managers have been burning the midnight oil working towards achieving their current position for a long time, and some may have sacrificed family time and personal finances in order to get there. Although the organisation may have sent them for Scrum training, they still won’t have all the context. Training can lay a good foundation, but often the participants have more organisation-specific questions plaguing their minds, specifically about their own future prospects. If these remain unanswered, it would result in a negative mind-set about the transformation from the onset.

After I attended Kanban fundamentals training, I had a lightbulb moment. What would have happened if the organisation started their journey towards an Agile mind-set with Kanban instead?

Fundamentally, Kanban meets the teams within an organisation where they are, and respects all current roles. This way, any manager would not specifically feel threatened, or suffer that feeling that she might be out of a job in the next couple of months…

Kanban makes visible current constraints, as well as the way in which value flows. It requires a focus on continuous improvement to address the constraints. Kanban will therefore allow the manager to discover that she can still add value, even if it could be with a different job title.

There would also be many positive effects if the organisation includes everyone and shares as much information as possible from the beginning. Then everyone would be in the same boat, rowing in the same direction, with the end destination clear in their minds.

We did end up agreeing that starting with Kanban could very well have helped alleviate the excruciating levels of frustration for our teams, giving them more peace of mind, and allowing a smoother adoption of Agile.