The Antimatter Principle – The Anti-Kanban For Almost Two Decades Already
Increasingly this year I’m being asked to comment about Kanban – and its offshoot, the Kanban Method, being offered in the market by David Anderson (and others). Some are pushing the Kanban Method very heavily with their clients as a solution to the increasingly recognised challenge of effective and sustainable organisational change. It has been gaining some market traction. In two specific examples, both large corporations, one in the financial sector and one in the media sector, developers and development managers have had some concerns about their firm’s move to adopt the Kanban Method and asked me to share my thoughts with them. I thought I’d share them with everyone else too…
To be honest, I don’t know a great deal about the Kanban Method. I haven’t taken the classes or spent much time studying it. Most of what I know is reported second hand from those who have taken the classes or are working in organizations that are now going through Kanban adoption. I am much more focused on solving the root problems of software development – and more importantly, the broader and deeper question of organisation-wide effectiveness – still plaguing organisations everywhere. I’m focused on real clients, and on addressing issues in the market which are appropriate for the Antimatter Principle. Plus, I’m inviting others to examine and learn what those root problems are. I’m not so occupied with learning about the Kanban Method. However, from a brief skimming of Kanban material and things reported to me, I can make the following observations about how it differs from the Antimatter Principle…
The Kanban Method – Yet Another Method
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The Kanban Method is just that – a method. It appears to specify a collection of techniques from Lean Manufacturing processes going back to the 1950s. It offers these as one packaged collection of principles and practices. Individually, these techniques are considered successful and there are positive case studies showing their adoption and benefits. The Kanban Method posits that its collected set of individually successful principles and practices will also be successful in aggregate. I would compare this assumption to individually testing a thousand individual car components and then declaring that as each of the components are know to work, the entire car composed of those parts will work! The idea at the very root of the Kanban Method – as with so many other methods – is that improving the way people work – how they set about their various tasks and the principles and practices involved in accomplishing each task, and how those task are strung together – is the key to improved productivity. This means that adopters are getting off on the wrong foot even before Day One. Whether a new suite of principle and practices is implemented incrementally, “starting from where you are” as the Kanban Method advises, or the new suite is implemented in a single change, it’s still placing the idea of process-as-the-solution at the core. It isn’t getting away from the source of the software crisis: ignoring that people (and their relationships) are what make the difference. One hundred and fifty years of sociology, anthropology, psychology and cognitive science warns of the risks in taking a principles-and-practices-oriented – as opposed to people-oriented – approach.
The concept for Kanban adoption within an organization is a familiar one – clients should employ a (so called) “Certified Kanban Trained” specialist to assist them in applying the three Foundational Principles and six Core Practices of the Kanban Method, in the context of their organization. To me this seems awfully similar to a raft of previous methods, including SAFe, RUP, Scrum, etc.. The Kanban Method strikes me as trying to distance itself from these ancestors, through its emphasis on incremental uptake, on a “people-friendly” easing-in to “drive out fear”, and to “reduce people’s natural resistance to change”. These admonitions seem to serve some need to include every current buzzword and show that, somehow, Kanban has “people inside.” I’m not impressed with the so-called people-related aspects of the Kanban Method, nor its emphasis on the role of leadership. I guess it has to make itself look attractive and saleable to the progressive yet still Analytic-minded organisations out there.
Where the Kanban Method really differs from the Antimatter Principle and why I chose the title for this blog post, is in a combination of the approach to adoption and the underlying assumptions about how to drive and manage change in knowledge work and creative industries. Kanban is delivered as a set of principles, to be applied and understood incrementally. Ideally you (the management) have them (the workers) do this. They find their own path, built on the principles provided (via a management-appointed Kanban specialist), and then they (the workers) own the evolution of the existing processes in the organization. This approach fits right in with the assumptions already prevailing in the typical organisation: that there are workers and managers; that there will continue to be processes (and projects); that the senior management continues to own the agenda; and that folks’ needs, ways of relating, and collective assumptions need no examination. It could be straight out of a 2000s textbook on agile adoption. It’s a status-quo-centric approach delivered using change management techniques that are 50 years old and most strongly associated with the likes of e.g. Virginia Satir and Peter Drucker. So Kanban offers you individually proven principles and practices from the previous five decades delivered with a decades-old intervention model developed for 20th Century knowledge-work industries. There is an underlying assumption that people resist change and thus ways need to be found to countervail that resistance. This is becoming a popular and successful model for many specialist firms, so we must assume that it is meeting some clients’ needs too, or surely they would not be buying these services? It is fair to say that this approach is the antithesis of the Antimatter Transformation Model.
Peter Drucker associated the term “knowledge worker” (in the 1960s) with someone who knows better how to perform their work than their supervisor. He didn’t think to add the phrase, “or process consultants, coaches or specialists from outside the firm.” It seems we continue to live in an era where we continue to believe that telling people what they need, particularly in the way of mechanisms, methods and models, will help the workers learn how to better do their work. Kanban remains an approach that is underpinned by the assumption that telling is a valid approach. The Antimatter Transformation Model abandons this notion. With a therapeutic approach we assume that everyone involved is just trying to get their needs met in the best ways they know how, and the key to unlock performance is to hold a space, and invite those that want to, with support, to consider if there may be other strategies for getting their need met that might work better for them. The Antimatter Transformation Model delivers this. The Antimatter Principle creates and nurtures an environment in which the quality of collaborative relationships, and folks’ intrinsic motivations, can thrive, for the mutual benefit of all involved. There is no assumption of “improvement” being the goal, or of any specific outcome excepting what meets the needs of all involved.
“The curious paradox is that when we accept ourselves just as we are, [only] then we can change.”
~ Carl R. Rogers (paraphrased)
The Antimatter Principle And Complexity
The Antimatter Principle is about creating and nurturing a healthy work environment, about taking a community-led approach to examining folks’ collective assumptions. Everyone’s needs matter. In attending to folks’ needs, everone has the opportunity to find deep joy and fulfilment that significantly impacts the health and thus the performance of the business of which they are a part. Carl Rogers observed that: “It is the client who knows what hurts, what directions to go, what problems are crucial, what experiences have been deeply buried”. And so it is the people that have what it takes to set their own agendas, pursue their own collective and individual needs, and find their own solutions.
It is well understood that knowledge work involves complexity and that a complex situation requires an adaptive approach in order to be robust to the uncertainties and unknown events that may emerge. Kanban was specifically designed as a method that posits that people resist change. The Antimatter Principle rejects that assumption, in favour of the belief that people love to change when they participate in and unequivocally see folks’ needs being met. The Kanban approach is appealing to some buyers and sellers because it comes with idealistic aspirations and fine words. It appeals to some people’s need for hope. What it doesn’t account for is that people are just trying to get their needs met.
The Antimatter Transformation Model is specifically designed as a invitation to a series of conversations. The concept is to uncover folks’ needs and go about meeting them. Whilst at the same time examining folks’ strategies for getting those needs met. You start with what folks are seeing and hearing, how they feel about those things, and what those feeling tell us about folks’ needs. As we go along, we get better at at expressing feelings, and at divining needs from feelings, and as we experience the successes of alternative strategies, gradually shift over to those new, more effective strategies rather than stick with the old, less effective ones.
What makes the Antimatter Transformation Model new and fairly unique is that it embraces the social sciences and is designed to work with what science tells us about human nature – rather than what most people believe human nature to be. Organisations adopting the Antimatter Principle evolve in their own ways through a series of collective and individual decisions – decisions made by a fellowship of social beings.
Abandoning a Method-Centric Approach to Improvement
One organization, I was told, adopted Kanban “because Kanban offered a gently-gently incremental, evolutionary yet methodical approach to software development”. Indeed this need – more effective software development methods – comes up often. I am often asked, “Can you show us a better way to develop software?”. My answer is always, “Yes, I could, but it is not the business I am in these days.” I prefer to focus on the organisation as a whole. That’s where the real opportunities for better meeting folks’ needs reside. Teaching improved software development methods is not the business I am in.
I came to develop the Antimatter Principle precisely because a methodology-based approach – including the Kanban Method – generally fails to address people’s real needs. The real failure is the failure to recognise that people are human beings. And a failure to recognise that play, community, joy, doing things for others, and self-actualisation are what people ultimately thrive on. After several decades of what I might call the Analytic approach (processes, methods, change programmes, etc.) in 1996 I decided to focus on a whole different problem – the problem of creating a healthier (and hence, more effective) working environment. Incremental, start-where-you-are approaches, per se, weren’t working. What was needed was to stop saying what was needed. I see it as heavily ironic that the Antimatter Principle came about for me because of the problems of scaling Agile adoption in large corporations – problems that I recognized as early as 1994 as a recurrinng pattern. Two more disparate solutions to the challenge of delivering organisation-wide effectiveness, such as Kanban and the Antimatter Principle, are hard to imagine.
Silver Bullets and Panaceas
This brings me to my final observation about Kanban and the Antimatter Principle. Another company told me that they adopted Kanban because it was a known solution (and they could find people with relevant skills). This is very convenient, but does it work? The buyer wants to believe in a “silver bullet” – that one solution that will solve all of their problems. Some vendors will seek to make offers and package a method of principles and practices as a single solution, as they know there is a market for it. I am afraid I don’t believe in “silver bullets”. The Antimatter Principle is complete in the sense that it delivers what it claims – an environment in which people can be more human, and humane. It is not a process definition or a method to be adopted. It will not directly help you architect software or perform tests or write requirements. For these technical practices there are many place to look. What the Antimatter Principle enables you to do is create an environment in which people are more likely to choose to give of their best. A community of which people are more likely to want to become, and remain, a part. It enables great products to emerge, and everyone’s time and goodwill to be spent wisely. I’m cynical about cure-alls, panaceas. It’s difficult in this maelstrom of change to be an expert at one thing, never mind a great many. Developing the Antimatter ecosystem globally, we’re trying to be good at one thing – a hedgehog concept, if you like. We are seeking to be good at contributing to meaningful, positive social change through more humane workplaces. We do this by heeding Carl Roger’s advice:
“In my early professional years I was asking the question: ‘How can I treat, or cure, or change this organisation?’ Now I would phrase the question in this way: ‘How can I provide a relationship which this organisation may use for its own personal growth?’.”
~ Carl R. Rogers (paraphrased)
It is inevitable that many people in the market will find it convenient to choose a method, to select what they believe is a methodical solution to all of their problems, and to believe that this solution can work when it involved the workers and is allowed to find its own answers. And I am fine with that. The Antimatter Principle was never about a religious conversion of the masses or an attempt to bring the world of knowledge work to the one true way of behaving. It has always been about meeting folks’ needs, including the collective needs of those things we call “organisations” through an approach that is humane, aligned with the human condition and grounded in the social sciences. It’s about helping people who need help and have sought out a new radical approach, a different way of working to see their needs better and more often met, and to deliver greater satisfaction for all involved.
The Antimatter Transformation Model will coexist with the Kanban Method in the marketplace. People will choose between a modern 21st Century approach to human social challenges or a more familiar approach to change. Choice is good in a marketplace. The Antimatter Principle offers a counter-intuitive, innovative modern approach. The Kanban Method offers something more familiar. People may appreciate having alternatives to evaluate, and from which to select the approach which they feel best meets their needs. Many will choose something that feels familiar and intuitive and we have to accept they know their needs better than we, and rejoice in that. Coexistence of the Antimatter Principle and Kanban is a good thing. Providing alternative approaches to more effective organisations is a good thing. Both approaches will champion the role of people. Both will be marketed as approaches that place people at the heart of the organisation. I find considerable hope and joy in that.
Realistically, all the above is so much fluff. Attempting to rationalise the benefits of the Antimatter Principle, or the Kanban Method, or indeed any other approach misses the whole point that people don’t make rational choices. They make emotional ones. Engaging with folks’ emotions – their feelings and needs, not least – offers a much more fruitful path to communicate, and hopefully, help.