Antimatter principle

The Antimatter Principle

Photo-realistic simulation of matter-anti-matter annihilation

Antimatter is by far the most valuable substance, by weight, known to Man (around $25 billion per gram). It’s incredibly rare, amazingly expensive and difficult to produce, and yet is by far the most powerful energy source we presently know of. It’s also the very epitome of alienness.

Seems like a good metaphor for the Antimatter Principle – the only principle we need for becoming wildly effective at collaborative knowledge work.

The Antimatter Principle

Inspired by Jim Benson’s Personal Kanban, which has just two simple “rules” – “make work visible, and limit wip” – I’ve been seeking to simplify software and product development – or, in fact, any kind of knowledge work – and reduce it to just one rule:

“Attend to folks’ needs.”

The power of this simplification may not be immediately apparent, so please allow me to explain…

Attend To

Meaning, “pay attention to”. In a complicated or complex group endeavour such as developing a major piece of software, or tech product, we have the opportunity to pay attention to many things. What we pay attention to determines what gets done. Traditionally, these kinds of endeavour might pay attention to value, flow, cost, quality, customers or profits – to name just a few. But if we accept that people are central to this kind of work, then all these typical foci pale into insignificance alongside folks and their needs.


Meaning, everyone involved. Software and product development endeavours typically involve lots of people. Not just the “doers”, but the “sponsors”, the “buyers”, and a whole host of other groups and individuals. Some folks will obviously be in the frame from the get-go, many other folks will only come into view as the endeavour unfolds. I have for many year used the term “covalence” to describe this perspective.


This reminds us that we’re working for and with people, and all people have needs, many of these tragically unmet. Needs are the universal lingua franca of the human race. Sadly, much too often overlooked or down-played. Here’s a list of needs as an example of the kind of thing I have in mind.

Expecting folks to gaily subjugate their personal needs for the Man’s coin is not only naive, but flies in the face of decades of research.

The Antimatter Principle asks us to remember to listen to our own deeper needs – and to those of others – and to identify and clearly articulate what “is alive in us”. Through its implicit emphasis on deep listening – to ourselves as well as others – the Antimatter Principle fosters respect, attentiveness and empathy, and engenders a mutual desire to give from the heart. This is oh so simple, yet powerfully transformative.


Does the Antimatter Principle, and this explanation of it, meet *your* needs?

– Bob

The Antimatter Principle – the Metaphor


I call it the Antimatter Principle because, to me, it’s the most valuable insight by far I’ve ever had in my whole career.

Why “Antimatter”?

  • It’s a strange name to choose, and so may spur curiosity in the folks who hear it. And may more easily lodge itself in folks’ memories.
  • Antimatter is the most valuable substance, by weight, in the known universe. The Antimatter Principle, when applied in businesses and other organisations, has the potential to be the most valuable principle by far when it comes to the effectiveness of collaborative knowledge-work – creative work involving groups of people.
  • Antimatter is the most concentrated form of energy we know. Attending to folks’ needs is similarly the most concentrated form of energy available to organisations.
  • Antimatter is incredibly rare – at least as rare as the idea that attending to folks’s needs is a viable and worthwhile focus for e.g. commercial organisations.
  • Antimatter is just so weird and alien. As is the idea that people matter, and that putting their needs first is any kind of conceivable option for businesses.
  • Antimatter is simple in concept, but incredibly difficult to produce in actuality. Ditto the Antimatter Principle. Putting folks’ needs first is simple in concept, but difficult to produce in reality. We humans have been schooled (sic) for so long to ignore our needs – and those of others – that overcoming this conditioning can seem at least as challenging as the production of useful quantities of antimatter.
  • Antimatter is the annihilative “opposite” of matter. The Antimatter Principle is in many ways the annihilative “opposite” to all the process-oriented approaches – Agile, Kanban, BPR, CMMI, etc. – that have monopolised, and tyrannised, folks’ thoughts and actions up till now, in the field of organisational effectiveness.
  • It might help to remind us that things are not as they appear. The world according to Quantum Physics is a strange and unintuitive place for us puny humans – much like the typical organisation, where we take for granted all that’s going on around us and rarely if ever look beneath the surface, nor understand much about what’s going on if we do look.
  • I’m struck by the parallels between matter (the everyday common experiences of folks working in e.g. Analytic-minded organisations everywhere) and antimatter (originally at least as abundant as matter, but now so very uncommon).

– Bob

Further Reading

Leadership And The New Science ~ Margaret Wheatley
Ten Things You Might Not Know About Antimatter ~ Diana Kwon

A New Frame

For more than half a century, the software industry has been trying to find methods to increase the likelihood of successful software development. From Flowcharting in the 1960s, through to Agile methods today, the industry has gone through dozens of different approaches. And found them all wanting.

hart: David F Rico

All of these methods, diverse as they may seem, have at least two things in common:

  1. They all focus on various technical (aka mechanistic) aspects of software development.
  2. None of them have made much difference to the general level of successful software development aka “the software crisis”. Cf The bi-annual Standish Group “Chaos” reports (below).


I am convinced that the focus on technical aspects is a core reason – I’d go so far as to say the core reason – for the lack of progress in increasing our industry’s rates of success.

Having been in the industry more than thirty years, and having seen – and used – most if not all of the methods listed in the Rico chart (above), I suggest that we might do well to fundamentally change our frame.

Old Frame

The predominating frame for the past fifty years has been that of:

  • processes and a process-orientation
  • technical practices (cf. CMMI, XP, Kanban, etc.)
  • generic (one-size-fits-all) solutions – typically, imposed on those doing the work

Hardly a surprising frame for an industry long dominated by engineers and scientists. Even though engineers and scientists are people, too (ironically).

And also less than surprising considering this frame has been ubiquitous in business – and much of wider society – for at least the past hundred years and more.

New Frame

Times are, however, a-changing.

Given that software development is perhaps the epitome of collaborate knowledge-work involving groups of people, I propose that we as an industry reorient ourselves and adopt a more useful frame.

The frame I have in mind (sic) is one embracing e.g.:

  • sociology
  • psychology
  • anthropology
  • complex adaptive systems
  • group dynamics
  • personalised solutions

In other words, a frame placing people, not practices, centre-stage. A frame focused on people – and their emergent individual and collective needs.

“You can’t really know what you need until you get it. Only then will you know whether you need it or not.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

You may appreciate that this frame is about as far as we might possibly imagine from the prevailing (old) frame that we all know and suffer.

Hence my recent posts introducing The Antimatter Principle:

“Attend to folks’ needs.”

~ The Antimatter Principle

A Challenging Request

Would you be willing to take a fresh look at your deepest foundational beliefs regarding how to approach software and product development?

Maybe by doing so we can move away from the mechanical, inhumane, violent and coercive frame within which we’ve all laboured so miserably and so ineffectively for so long.

Maybe we have to fundamentally change our frame before we can begin to build and work in effective organisations – organisations aligned to human nature, and celebrating humanity, joyful society and freedom of choice?

– Bob

Further Reading

Short History of Software Methods ~ David F. Rico
“if you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business” ~ Simon Sinek (video)



I first hit on the notion “Attend to folks’ needs” – only very recently named by me the Antimatter Principle – back in 1996. We had just launched Familiar Ltd, and our first big commercial project was to build a self-service web application for the corporate customers of a large Telco. As one of the first Agile software houses in Europe, we of course applied Agile principles (although not the label) in the conduct of the project.

Aside: Yes, we were still “doing projects” back then.

One key aspect of the project was discovering just what our Telco client – and, by proxy, their customers – wanted us to build. Most of us has been around the block enough times to know the importance of “building the right thing™”. Regular interim releases of the evolving product was one of our primary means to this end. But from the outset we also began asking, recording and sharing what all the folks involved in the project needed from it.

You can see a very simplified example of this approach described in the post “Nonviolent Project Management“.

Not Just Customer Work

We did not apply the Antimatter Principle just to our customer projects, though. We used the same principle in the inception and evolution of the whole company, too. For both our customer projects and the company, we sought the needs of everyone involved – developers, customers, suppliers, channel partners, everyone. Everyone, that is, that was willing to have a say.

Of course, it was early days for these ideas. We made some mistakes. And some useful discoveries along the way.

Since those days, I’ve applied much the same Antimatter Principle in just about every engagement and role I’ve had. Sometimes it’s coincided with stellar success (like the aforementioned Telco project). Sometimes it’s coincided with a train wreck. Most often, the latter has been in organisations where attending to folks’ needs has been unimaginably alien. I’ve learned some lessons from that, too. (And see cautions, at end).


Some folks have responded to my recent posts suggesting that they couldn’t imagine an organisation that cleaved to the Antimatter Principle. What it might look and feel like. How it might work in practice. Having not only imagined it, but experienced it for real, I thought some pointers might prove valuable. Here’s some of the things that made it not only possible, but a joy to be part of:


Quantifying folks’ needs – even in the most rudimentary manner – made discussing them much easier and less ambiguous. We happened to use a variant of Evo (cf. Tom Gilb) for this.

Fit Feedback

Our takes on our own – and other folks’ – needs were mostly educated guesswork. Conscious of this, yet not fazed by it, we tried to deliver quickly on a solution to each of these guesses – so that the person or group involved could try it on for size and determine how close to the mark our guesswork had been.

“You can’t really know what you need until you get it. Only then will you know whether you need it or not.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Integrated, Intentional

Over time, we invented various means to explain our approach, and to solicit, record and act on folks’s needs, and built these means into the way our work worked. “Stakeholders and their Needs” is one example of this kind of thing. The evolving record of who were our stakeholders, and their (ever-changing) needs formed one element of a broader “project control dashboard” (a.k.a. context radiator) – which also served to record and, more importantly, share and make visible other aspects of the work:

  • Project Name
  • Project Charter
  • Statement of Purpose
  • Case For Action
  • Vision
  • Stakeholders and their Needs
  • User Stories or Use Cases (derived from and traceable to Stakeholders needs)
  • Quality Objectives (also derived from and traceable to Stakeholders needs)
  • RIsk Parade and Top Risks
  • Critical Success Factors (key quantified aspects of the Purpose)
  • Outline Feature Schedule (including milestones or integration dates)
  • Glossary of project-specific terms
  • Project address book
  • Miscellanea (e.g. quality, test and change plans – depending on folks’ needs)

Aside: This general form served the fairly standard needs of a wide range of projects. Each particular element only appeared, and was elaborated, to the extent that some folks had expressed a need for the information. Further (one-off) coordination, etc. needs were met on an as-needed basis.


For some of our staff, and customers too, the whole idea of a company going out of its way to seek out and listen to their personal needs, and moreover act on them, in an organised and intentional way, was bizarre in the extreme. In a refreshing way. (We selected our customers and suppliers – and staff too – with much care).

For staff in particular, I can remember many intense conversations on the sofas or over a pint, exploring the implications of what I now know as the Antimatter Principle.


That this all began nearly twenty years ago causes me some chagrin. Not least because of how it’s taken me so long to come to appreciate the role of the Antimatter Principle in our success at Familiar – and other occasions since.

Having experienced it, I have little doubt that the Antimatter Principle was at the root of the joyous experiences I have both witnessed and participated in over the years since I first began to “Attend to folks’ needs”.

– Bob

WarningSign Caution! Attempting to treat people as if they matter, without winning the understanding and active support of your higher-ups and your peers, may cause alienation, organisational cognitive dissonance, damage to your credibility, and to your career.
WarningSign Caution! Attempting to treat people as if they matter, without first winning their trust and understanding, may cause suspicion, resentment, gossip, and unforeseen consequences.
WarningSign Caution! Attempting to replicate this story in your own organisation may require experimentation, adjustments for your own context, and sensitivity to the needs of the people involved. Your results may vary from those reported here.

A Finger Pointing at the Moon


I am indebted to @dagb for reminding me of this story.

“Always remember, truth cannot be said, it can be shown. It is a finger pointing to the moon. All words are just fingers pointing to the moon, but don’t accept the fingers as the moon. The moment you start clinging to the fingers – that’s where doctrines, cults, creeds, dogmas, are born – then you have missed the whole point. The fingers were not the point; the point was the moon.”

~ Osho

The Finger

For me, the Antimatter Principle is like the finger. It’s not the moon. A pointer only, to the kind of world we can create, should we so choose.

The Moon

There’s a wonderful, joyful glory in actually experiencing the feelings of attending to folks’ needs, theirs to each other’s, and theirs to ours. And in seeing those needs met. For me, this is the moon.

Oh, and not the actual, more prosaic outcomes from attending to folks’ needs, btw.

“So”, you may be asking. “You’re saying that hard-nosed commercially-driven organisations, and the suits running them, could opt to admitting feeling and emotions – of joy, of connection, of mutuality – into our workplaces? To adopt a new frame?”

Yes. That’s what I’m saying. And not just opt to admit feelings and emotions, but to embrace the new frame – the Giraffe Frame – and to act deliberately to encourage them. To place them centre-stage. To point their fingers at the moon.

“Human beings the world over say they want to contribute to the well-being of others, to connect and communicate with others in loving, compassionate ways.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Why would our jackal organisations want to do this? Well, apart from the suits being human themselves – a humanness for so long denied and suppressed – they might want to do this because it make ever-more commercial sense. Knowledge-work organisations are people places. Research is showing us the massive benefits that positive emotions and feelings bring to the workplace. Commercial benefits not least.

But that’s not the moon.

Like the Eightfold Path

As in Buddhism’s Eightfold Path, the Antimatter Principle is meant as a guideline, to be considered, to be contemplated, and to be taken on when, and only when it is fully accepted as part of the life you seek. I reject asking for blind faith, and would like rather to promote learning and a process of mutual self-discovery.

“My teachings are easy to understand
and easy to put into practice.
Yet your intellect will never grasp them,
and if you try to practice them, you’ll fail.

My teachings are older than the world.
How can you grasp their meaning?

If you want to know me,
Look inside your heart.”

~ Lao Tzu, The Tao Te Ching

Would you be willing to share your feelings about the “glory of the moon”?

– Bob

Further Reading

“if you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business” ~ Simon Sinek

Poka-Yoking The Method


Our methods – our methodologies – have failed us. Not because they don’t help us do better, when well-applied, but because they don’t help us apply them well. Lean, Agile, TOC, you name it. All promise massive benefits “when done right”. And all fail for the most part because they are so rarely “done right”.

Aside: It’s reckoned that Lean adoptions fail some 98% of the time, Agile (Scrum) adoptions at least 75% of the time.

I’m not anti-method. I’ve seen the benefits methods can bring, first hand. I’ve seen the key role a good method can play in reducing the waste of human potential – so prevalent in our knowledge-work organisations today. Hey, some folks might even call me a methodologist. God forbid. Over the past two decades I have regularly asked myself “Why?”. Why are methods so hard for folks to adopt? So unsuited to people getting to do them right?

Discongruent Mindsets

Discongruent mindsets go a long way to explaining the problem.

Folks in any given organisation typically have a bunch of common, shared assumptions and views about the way organisations should work, and about how work should work. Folks who design methods – and methodologies – also have their assumptions and views. Assumptions and views – aka mindset – which get “baked in” to the methods they design and promote.

All too often these two mindsets do not play well together. And all too often the discongruities only become apparent when an organisation has spent some considerable time and effort in attempting to adopt a particular method.

Few folks look at the two mindsets – their’s and the method designers’ – and consider the probability of a match, or mismatch.


Poke-yoke is a Japanese terms that means mistake-proofing. In the design of parts for assembly (DFA), poka yoke can serve to guide parts designers to take explicit steps to ensure parts cannot be assembled incorrectly.

“A poka-yoke is any mechanism that helps an equipment operator avoid making mistakes. Its purpose is to eliminate product defects by preventing, correcting, or drawing attention to human errors as they occur. The concept was formalised, and the term adopted, by Shigeo Shingo as part of the Toyota Production System.”

We can see many everyday examples of mistake-proofing.


Someday, people will design methods that explicitly take account of how people adopt new ideas and ways of working. Method designers will design their methods expressly to help people learn them more easily. People and organisations will select methods based on the ease of their adoption and the sustainability of their use.

Successful – more widely adopted – methods will be those more sensitive to the many foibles and failing of us puny humans. We might call these humane methods. DFA (Designed For Adoption) methods.

What if we applied the Poka-yoke principle to the design of our methods? What if we learnt from the decades of failure regarding the successful, sustainable adoption of Lean, Agile, etc. and applied our knowledge of people and the way they best absorb new ideas and ways of working?

What principles would guide us in such endeavours? What would be our analogies for offset holes, asymmetric flanges, digital counters, interlocks, guards, and so on?

One aspect of future approaches to the design of methods stands out – the need to find approaches that ordinary non-methodologists can pick up and apply. Approaches which play sympathetically to our basic skills and needs – as people. Approaches which suit our human nature. If experience with recent methods such as Agile and Systems Thinking have shown us one thing, it’s the value of having the folks doing the work also being the folks that design and redesign the way the work works.

The Antimatter Principle

“Attend to folks’ needs” is my candidate for improving the mistake-proofing of the designs of our methods. Of improving their Design For Adoption.

I propose that just this one simple principle makes it easier to come up with methods which people are more likely to adopt sustainably. As well as methods which are more likely to deliver real benefits to the adopting organisations and their people.

When considering the waste of human potential, consider not least the waste of enthusiasm, hope, and human potential inherent in failed method adoptions.

Of course, applying the Antimatter Principle well – doing it right – is not a cakewalk. But it seems to me to hold much more promise of folks “getting the hang of it” than all the more or less inhumane methods and methodologies we’ve been lumbered with to date.

– Bob

One Principle, One Agendum

helping On the face of it, my most recent job was very different to some other gigs I’ve had over the years. A Novice Analytic organisation, trying hard to become Competent Analytical and spending untold millions of pounds in the process – on things like policies, structure, controls, compliance and the whole nine yards.

The Problem

The immediate problem was the borkedness of the organisation’s whole approach to software and tech product development. Like so many other organisations, quality was low, deadlines regularly and repeatedly missed, costs out of line with expectations – the usual problems.

The Answer

Yet “the answer” was, as ever, summed up by the Antimatter Principle:

“Attend to folks’ needs.”

Of course, given the nature of the organisation, there was from the outset a fundamental question as to whether this was going to fly, and after some six months it had become patently clear that the answer was “no”.

The folks holding the reins – and the purse strings – appeared unable to transcend their existing beliefs and assumptions, even as it meant they were frustration their own needs being met. Not to mention the needs of e.g. customers, shareholders, and employees.

One Principle

I’ve written several posts recently about the Antimatter Principle. This one principle is all any knowledge-work organisation need adopt. All things, all beneficial outcomes, can flow from a focus on this one principle. I suspect most folks don’t even begin to understand just how much of a sea change this is. Or maybe most folks believe that, like in my recent job, it’s never going to fly. Well, many things we see in the workplace now were once inconceivable. And ineffectiveness remains the rule throughout organisations of all kinds. Isn’t finding better ways what we’re focussed on? At least, for some of us? Personally, I’d much prefer working with those very few organisations where it could fly, today.

“Everything in Theory of Constraints comes down to one word: FOCUS.”

~ Eliyahu M. Goldratt

Similarly, one could say that – from the perspective of the Antimatter Principle – everything in making knowledge-work organisations more effective comes down to one word: NEEDS.

One Agendum

Implicit in the Antimatter Principle is but one agenda item: When we attend to everyone’s needs – including, don’t forget, our own – everything else takes care of itself. Or more exactly, everything else – all needs, of all folks – is taken care of by those folks. If some folks need effective services delivered to them by others, that’s what happens. If some folks need to see things improving, folks attend to that.

Modus Operandi

Neither “big change”, nor “start with the status quo”, but “start where folks feel they need to start, and change as quickly or as slowly as folks feel they each – and collectively – need to change”.


The healthy and effective application of the Antimatter Principle – if some folks need it applied healthily or effectively – is predicated on folks acquiring skills in e.g. meaningful dialogue and humane relationships. In a circular fashion, the Antimatter Principle – even from the outset, when folks may be quite unskilled – will contribute to the acquisition of those skills – as and when needed.


Some people have asked me what happens when different folks’ needs are in conflict. For me, this is a non-question, assuming as it does that folks will pursue their own needs at the expense of others’.

“What people enjoy more than anything else is willingly contributing to each other’s wellbeing.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

Try this short thought experiment:

Think of an occasion recently when you’ve done something that has enriched some else’s life. How does it feel right now to be conscious you have this power to contribute to people’s well-being? Can you think of anything in the world that’s more enjoyable than contributing to people’s wellbeing?

I share the NVC view that:

“Compassionate giving is what people MOST enjoy doing.”

New Frame

I’ve written recently about the Antimatter Principle being a profoundly new frame. Marshall Rosenberg sums this up well:

“We need as a society to have a different consciousness, based on ‘compassionate giving’.”

~ Marshall Rosenberg

The Commercial Angle

If you’ve managed to read this far without clicking away in disgust or exasperation, I’d like to close this post with a few words about the commercial angle. Most businesses exist (ostensibly) to make money. Even those who dispute this – such as Russell Ackoff, Bill Deming, and Art Kleiner – suggest other reasons for businesses to exist. In any case, I’m no hippy idealist, pleading for humanity (just) on the basis of moral or ethical arguments. Rather, I have seen so many times, in so many organisations, what happens when people’s needs are ignored – and what CAN happen when folks needs receive the focus of everyone’s attention. Outcomes (profits, status, lifestyles, or whatever we can agree is the goal) improve massively when folks come together as an active community engaged in compassionate giving. And the outcome that most occupies me – the realisation of human potential – is massively increased, too.


I remain flabbergasted at the number of organisations and people – executives, managers and workers all – who fail to realise this. Or choose to ignore it. It’s the world we live in, I guess.

“When I look at the world I’m pessimistic, but when I look at people I am optimistic.”

~ Carl Rogers

I remain hopeful that one day – please, oh please let it be one day soon – folks will wake up to the amazing possibilities at the heart of the Antimatter Principle. How about you? Have you awoken?

– Bob

The Tyranny of Method

Tl;Dr: The idea of “method” a.k.a. process, a.k.a. methodology as a means to improvement has had its day. The damage it has caused, and its occlusion of alternatives, must come to an end. Let’s bury the idea of “method”.



“Method” is a zombie meme. It’s been dead a long time, but still staggers on, seeking new brainzzz of the living upon which to feed.

It’s time to lay the idea of “Method” to rest.

Rest In Peace, Method.

[If you would like me to elaborate this post, please let me know. 🙂 ]

– Bob

Further Reading

Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method: A Brief Take ~ Blog post

Who Needs Retrospectives?

[Tl;Dr: Which elements of the way the work works in your organisation exist to serve a real need of an actual person? All elements which do not are waste.]

I don’t intend this as a rhetorical question. But rather as an opportunity to consider the Antimatter Principle via a practical example.

Note: In a previous post I wrote about the problems with retrospectives, and some possible solutions to same. What I DIDN’T raise in that post was: the need for retrospectives of any sort.


On the face of it, a team – for example, a Scrum team – needs retrospectives, or something similar, to help them improve their ways of working. This is the “Check” step in the Plan-Do-Check-Act Shewhart Cycle. Retrospectives offer an opportunity for the team to check (study) their ways of working, and consider how well their ways of working are serving them – how well their ways of working are serving them in getting folks’ needs met more generally.

Retrospectives can be quite handy for those teams where folks have found they have a need to improve. We might choose to express this more specifically as “…teams where folks have found they have a need to improve their ways of getting folks’ needs met”.

Aside: Some teams may have been ”told” to improve, and so have a need to improve to keep their employers happy. We might imagine that – in this case – the need is someone else’s. A higher-up, somewhere. Other teams may have found some intrinsic need to improve, such as a desire to learn more, or “become all they can be”. Others again may have embraced the new frame of the Antimatter Principle, and become aware of the need to continually find better ways of getting everyone’s needs met.

No Need

But for the vast majority of teams I have seen, no such need exists. These teams may be in organisations where improvement is not a priority. Or the folks in these teams may not have found any intrinsic need to improve. Or they may not have embraced the Antimatter Principle. If no such need exists, then any attempts at retrospectives will never be anything more than “going through the motions”. In other words, busywork with no purpose. In such situations, how likely is it that anything of value will emerge from the retrospective sessions?

Of course, so-called retrospective sessions may be serving other needs, such as providing a collective break from the daily grind of sprints. Or the chance to get together to chat socially. Camouflaging these needs under the label “retrospective” may be necessary in certain organisational climes. But in these circumstances, these sessions are retrospectives in name only.

So, in your organisation, whose needs are retrospectives serving? Maybe if you can find out who, you can go ask them just what their need is, and thereby come up with some outcomes that your retrospectives can deliver. Otherwise, you’re just retrospecting – or pretending to – in the dark.

– Bob

Who Needs Kanbans?

[Tl;Dr: Which elements of the way the work works in your organisation exist to serve a real need of an actual person? All elements which do not are waste.]

I don’t intend this as a rhetorical question. But rather as an opportunity to consider the Antimatter Principle via a practical example.

Note: This is a revision of my “Who Needs Retrospectives” post, for all the Kanban folks out there who may find the idea of per-sprint retrospective less than relevant.

Make Work Visible

By “kanbans” I’m meaning (here) the visible boards, cards, etc. that Kanbaners typically use to make the work visible.

On the face of it, Kanban teams often choose a kanban of some sort in order to help them make their work visible. Making the work (more) visible is one of the key practices (a.k.a. rules) of all the various flavours of Kanban. Visualising the work offers opportunities for the team to better understand their work, and how they’re handling it.

Making the work visible can be quite handy for those teams where folks have found they have a need to better understand their work; how it arrives, how it flows through the team, where the sticking points and issues are, and so on.

Aside: Some teams may have been ”told” to make their work more visible, and so have a need for a kanban to keep their employers happy. We might imagine that – in this case – the need is someone else’s. A higher-up, somewhere. A need often poorly articulated and maybe not well understood. Other teams may have decided themselves that making their work more visible affords them an opportunity to meet their intrinsic need for learning and improving the way they handle their work. Others again may have embraced the new frame of the Antimatter Principle, and become aware of the need to make more visible how well – or poorly – they’re doing, day to day, with getting everyone’s needs met.

No Need

But often, teams have no such needs. These teams may be in organisations where a shared understanding of the work is not a priority. Or the folks in these teams may not have found any intrinsic need to understand their work. Or they may not have yet embraced the Antimatter Principle. If no such needs exist, then any attempts at making the work more visible will never be anything more than “going through the motions”. In other words, a cosmetic exercise, busywork with no purpose. In such situations, how likely is it that anything of value will emerge from making the work more visible?

Of course, so-called kanbans may be serving other needs, such as a salve to higher-ups, who may have a need to be comforted by seeing one. Or folks’ need to understand more about kanbans, or their need to make their resumes look more attractive. Camouflaging these needs under the label “making the work more visible” may be necessary in certain organisational climes. But in these circumstances, these artefacts are kanbans in name only.

So, in your organisation, whose needs are the kanbans serving? Maybe if you can find out who, you can go ask them just what their need is, and thereby come up with some outcomes that your kanbans can deliver. Otherwise, you’re just expending wasted effort in making the work visible – or pretending to – without any impact.

– Bob

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