Recognizing the Need for Change

One of the things I love about Personal Kanban, is that it enables me to interrogate subconscious behaviours. By making things that are usually hidden explicit and visible, I am forced to confront them.

If there is one thing we humans are not good at interrogating, it’s practises that have outlived their usefulness.  When they’re personal, we call these practises habits. In organizations, we call them processes. Either way, we’re not very good at recognizing when something we have been doing for a long time needs to change because it’s no longer working or no longer relevant. This is because we’re hard-wired to want to keep things the way they are. This is called the status quo bias – one of many cognitive biases that tend to influence the way we think and consequently act – or fail to act.

A recent example in my use of Personal Kanban reminded me of this again – and how to recognize the need for change sooner, rather than later.

Holding on too long

In the almost four years that I have been using Personal Kanban at work, I had developed a specific routine. Every morning, I would update my board before getting started with the day’s work. This was an important part of my morning reflection ritual. I’d move the tasks that were Done the previous day, and I’d update the simple set of cumulative flow statistics I keep in Excel. While doing so, I’d ponder the root cause of any hold-ups in my workflow. At the end of the week, I’d spend a little extra time analysing the spread of work across different areas of my work.

But in the last six months, I found myself increasingly under pressure to start the day running, usually with an 8.30 (or earlier!) meeting or teleconference. And before I’d know it, it would be lunch-time or later before I’d get around to updating my board, if I even got that far. Increasingly, I found myself updating my board retroactively, often three or four days after the fact.

This was starting to cause me significant anxiety. Not necessarily because I was missing out on my reflection time, but because I felt guilty. I felt I was failing by not following the correct process. I started obsessing over updating the board daily, even getting up earlier in the morning just to update the board.  And some days I’d manage, but then reality would hit and I’d find myself updating the board again a few days later, with the guilt cycle starting all over again. On top of it, I was becoming very frustrated by my apparent erratic work habits. My daily cumulative flow statistics were all over the place, with no two days showing a consistent flow of work.

Embracing changed circumstances

Then it hit me. My context had changed – and significantly so – but I was still desperately trying to cling on to an old process. The old routine that had worked so well for me before was no longer relevant, and I had failed to recognize it. Instead, I had put myself under more pressure by trying to make my new circumstances fit an outdated process. Sound familiar? It’s what we do in our organizations all the time.

I took a step back and had a good look at the way my context had changed.  Many of the things I am working on now take more than a day to complete, and often more than two or three days. Trying to move things to Done daily was actually not adding any value at all. And not seeing those items moving to Done every day was demotivating and stressful.

So I made the call to do away with my daily Done column completely. Instead, I now move cards directly to Done This Week, and I update my cumulative flow statistics only at the end of the week.

Making the process work for *you*

The result has been liberating. Almost immediately, I felt the anxiety I’d been feeling melting away.  What’s more,  with the new perspective I have on my workload, I am seeing a clear pattern emerging again. It seems I still follow a clear ebb and flow weekly cycle, the way I have always done, it’s just become less predictable on a daily basis. And that is an entirely true and honest reflection of the nature of my current role.  But instead of beating myself up about it, I’m now embracing the variability, and allowing the patterns and rhythms of this new set of conditions to teach me new things.

The point of Personal Kanban is not to be a slave to the process, but for the process to serve you. And when you think of it, that should be true of processes in our organizations, too. But too often, we try to shoehorn reality into “the right process”, whether said process is right for the current conditions or not.

Why do we do this? Is it because it’s easier to keep doing what you’re doing? Or because we think the new conditions are just temporary? Or that if we just try harder, we’ll get the process right this time? Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle of all those possibilities. I’m not sure. I’ll have to give this some more thought.

But what I do know, is that the next time I feel anxiety build up because of consistent and regular failure to adhere to a specific process, despite committed attempts to do so, then it’s probably time to step back and ask myself if that process is still relevant.

Have something to share?

How has resistance to change manifested in your life? Are there change signals that you have learnt to heed? I’d love to hear from you!

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