Kanban’s First Change-Management Principle and Chesterton’s Gate

At a recent Lean Kanban St. Louis meetup, I shared that, while the Manifesto for Agile Software Development has been amazingly enduring, it was silent on the issue of change management, which, in my experience, is the area that most commonly inhibits the ability for the Manifesto’s values and principles from taking root.

This is why I appreciate that the Kanban Method explicitly addresses change-management, and in particular, sets the tone with its first change-management principle:

Start with what you do now, understanding current processes, as actually practiced, and respecting existing roles, responsibilities and job titles.

In their book Essential Kanban Condensed, David Anderson and Andy Carmichael explain it this way:

…the current processes, along with their obvious deficiencies, contain wisdom and resilience that even those working with them may not fully appreciate.

This is the challenge that people brought into organizations as “change agents” or “agile coaches” face — I know, because I’ve been one and, to my and my client’s disservice, not heeded this advice. And in fairness, it’s difficult: The ambit — get results, immediately — is often at cross-purposes with this principle.

It reminds me of an earlier bit of wisdom from the writer G.K. Chesterton:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.

This metaphor has become known as “Chesterton’s Fence.” To be sure, it takes time to understand the reason for the fence, and, to be sure, in many organizations, time has obviated the need for the fence. But lest we strip away something that provides resilience, or simply create ill will by disrespecting another’s work, we’ll do well to first understand the reason for the fences — “the more intelligent type of reformer.”

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