On the latest edition of The Guardian Podcast with me, Ryn Melberg, I talk with Alex Yakyma. You can hear my conversation with him at www.rynmelberg.com, my iTunes channel at https://goo.gl/a82jd6 or on Soundcloud at https://goo.gl/wViFjm.
Alex is someone I’ve wanted to talk to for some time. Alex is known for his expertise in Lean, Agile and Scaled Agile and has even written fictional books about Agile. But for the podcast we talked about what goes on between the ears of those who are trying to implement Agile and/or Lean and how that can cause things to go wrong. What’s broken? Most fundamentally is agreement on just exactly that; ‘what is wrong’? These problems in value delivery are often referred to as ‘bottlenecks’. Lack of understanding on what the bottlenecks are and how to unblock them will scuttle the best plans and doom even the best Agile transformations. The reason is that none of us has the same view of reality. Alex refers to these attitudes as ‘mental models’. Known by this or other names like ‘shared beliefs’ or ‘popular opinion’ the way people in organizations perceive the world will impact outcomes of Agile or Lean implementation. Let’s scratch a little harder here to get the meaning.
When someone says ‘it’s a matter of perspective’ they may not know how much they’ve really said when it comes to transformations. After all, Lean suggests we look at the organization and make decisions based on value or better said, from where the value flows. Next is to identify bottlenecks, eliminate them, and go on to the next blockage; or as Alex says, ‘wash, rinse, repeat’. This builds on the assumption that everyone agrees on what the blockage is and the best way to eliminate it. Alex says that is a bad assumption.
Different people will see dissimilar problems in particular areas based on their individual expertise and they will often disagree. So, when trying to implement change in the form of Agile or Lean, we have to include in our change model how individuals perceive their own reality and how that relates to the project. A failure to incorporate this thinking is why and how so many internal changes fail. No one can simply ‘install’ Agile over an organization and expect to be successful if the members cannot agree on what to work on or why.
Lest anyone think that adding Agile or Lean will automatically solve problems, think again. Agile is more than a step by step way of working. For Agile to really be effective requires a 3-dimensional view of our organization. So many Agile transformations will flounder or fail because the fundamental beliefs that people have do not change by adding a layer of new stuff from Agile or Lean. It’s like painting over rust or rotten wood. A new gloss of color will not fundamentally change the nature of rust or rot. Similarly, adding a new process like Agile will not change the fundamental way people think about work.
So, mental models or perceptions of reality have to be shared, discussed and incorporated into the work. The shared view of reality or agreement on what is creating a bottleneck, regardless of practice, requires thinking tools to modify and adjust practices for change leaders. If my organization members all believe that the world is flat, teaching us navigation skills based on a moving horizon that resulted from the earth as a rotating sphere will not work. We all have to operate based on the same or at least similar beliefs. This effects how problems are identified and worked on. We have to refine understanding and perspective before we implement Agile or Lean. No one is an island, especially when they are incorporating Lean and Agile. Mental models will drive work and all decision making, regardless of anything else. To help accomplish any mission, the attitudes of people involved are almost always the most important thing. (Assuming of course we already have or have hired someone knowledge about the best ways to implement Agile).