Using Personal Kanban in Role Transitions

I’ve been through my fair share of role transitions in the last three years. It all started when I decided it was time to move on from the software company where I’d been working for just over eight years.

The Mechanics

Before making that move, I had been using Personal Kanban to manage my daily workload for quite some time. My role at that time was a fairly typical mix of product manager and product owner tasks, so my board followed a fairly simple 3 x 3 layout: To Do, Doing and Done across the top, with PM, PO and Adhoc swim lanes. This enabled me to see where I was spending most of my time in any given week and discover my own work “heartbeat”. I blogged in detail about this back in 2010.

When I accepted a Product Owner role at another company, I knew that I wanted to keep using Personal Kanban. The visual insights had become an important part of achieving personal effectiveness at work. But because it was a major step for me to break with my previous company, I also felt the need to prepare more formally for my new role. I did that by reading The First 90 Days. This well-respected guide to successful role transitions opened my eyes to some of the challenges I may face in a new organization, and provided a practical strategy for navigating those all-important first three months.

On my first day of starting at the new company, I created a simple desk kanban using stickies. Instead of the typical value chain, I used time horizons, linking my workflow to the 90-day transition approach. After all, a big part of this period was about figuring out the actual scope and boundaries of my new role. By staying focused on what needed to be done This Month, This Week, Tomorrow and Today, I acknowledged the fact that I was settling in and figuring things out.

In this period, I didn’t use any metrics other than tracking WIP on a daily basis. I figured it wouldn’t be useful to focus on task size or cycle time until my work crystallized into specific focus areas. After about two months, I had become familiar enough with my new territory to identify three swim lanes again: Sprint Work, Requirements Research and Adhoc. At this point, it became useful to start tracking cycle time, and applying some principles like First In, First Out again.

The Value

Since then, I’ve used this pattern equally successfully in subsequent role transitions. It soon became apparent that I was ready for more challenges than the new company could offer me. It was a bit like a rebound relationship – fun, but not meant to be much more than a fling.

I happily found a new home for my talents in my next move. And would you know it, the transition approach I had developed truly came into its own the second time round! The role I took on was much bigger and involved a lot of cross-team collaboration and influencing in a very large organization, all of which was new to me and rather daunting.

Having a trusted system I could use to visually organize the various strands of my new role made an enormous difference. It meant that I could focus my energy on the challenges at hand, rather than worry about whether anything was slipping through the cracks. It gave me the confidence that I could stay on top of the complexities of my new role.

It also helped to save me from myself …

When I used the approach the first time, I had noticed something very specific about my WIP in the first month. I exceeded my Work-In-Progress (WIP) limit quite often, pushing some actions and initiatives hard and fast. Upon reflection, I realized that I was being too over-eager in my drive to establish and prove myself quickly. I had to dial it back, or risk alienating myself. Unfortunately, some damage had already been done. Being a new broom is one thing. Unintentionally showing up your new colleagues is another.

This lesson was front of mind for me when I moved companies again. And by keeping a beady eye on my WIP limit, I was able to avoid the trap this time around.

Changing roles is challenging and stressful enough without additional, possibly self-inflicted complications. Having something to help you reflect regularly and honestly on your approach is invaluable. Personal Kanban was that something for me.


How has Personal Kanban helped you to gain insight into your own work life? What else have you used to manage complicated new work environments for yourself?

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