Introducing Agile Kata for Teams

Kata: Form, routine or pattern practiced to various levels of mastery

Version: 0.1
Date updated: 29 July 2022

First things first

Before we dive into the obvious question (why do we need an alternative to Scrum and Kanban?), lets orientate ourselves. When it comes to making sense of things I often turn to Cynefin, a sense-making framework developed by Dave Snowden. The Cynefin Framework defines four ‘zones’, each zone having an increasing level of complexity, and each requiring a different approach.

Cynefin Framework. See https://thecynefin.co/about-us/about-cynefin-framework Image credit: Agemba

Most relevant to this discussion is the ‘Complex’ zone. In this zone direct causal relationships cannot be determined. Meaning teams need to probe and experiment before determining action. Also in this zone there is no ‘best practice’ or even ‘good practice’. Instead, teams must develop emerging practices.

The conventional view is that Kanban is a good fit for the Obvious zone, Scrum a good fit for the Complicated and Complex Zones. In fact — and this is the paradigm shift — this is not the case. Kanban is a good fit for very obvious work, and Scrum finds its sweet spot at the intersection of the Obvious and Complicated zones. As work becomes more complex, the heavy-weight processes, and rigidity imposed by Scrum do not fit. The fit of Kanban and Scrum, within the Cynefin model is illustrated below:

The gap is not hard to see. As incredible as this seems — there is no widely-recognized agile way of working that is a good fit for knowledge work teams working in the Complicated-to-Complex and Complex quadrants.

To fill this gap in the context of team processes, agile coaches, process designers, leaders and teams must either:

  • Try to shoe-horn Scrum into the complex world the team operates in, resulting in an awkward fit at best
  • Try to shoe-horn Kanban into the team domain, generally giving even worse outcomes than a Scrum based solution
  • Develop their own team processes from scratch, not a simple thing to do.

For this reason, Agile Kata for Teams is offered as a team processes for teams involved in complex knowledge work.

For completeness here is the Cynefin framework with Agile Kata for Teams overlaid

The Cynefin Framework — Agile Kata for Teams fit

A team way of working

Agile Kata for Teams is a simple, agile way of working as a team. It is most suitable for small (3–5 people) knowledge work teams working in the complicated / complex domains within an agile environment. As such it is not an all of business framework. In product terms Agile Kata for Teams is an alternative to Scrum and Kanban, not SAFe.

Model

Agile Kata for Teams model

As illustrated above Agile Kata for Teams fits at the team process level. Because it is a lightweight system it can flex and adapt to suit organizational processes. This gives teams using Agile Kata for Teams an advantage over teams using Scrum, as Agile Kata teams can quickly adapt their team process to suit organizational ways of working changes without the ongoing need to conform to a rigid framework.

What Agile Kata for Teams doesn’t have

Before we look at what Agile Kata for Teams includes, lets first take a look at what this method does not include. Agile Kata for Teams is designed to be as lightweight as possible, while still retaining the connection and discipline needed for a team to achieve a consistent flow of valuable outcomes. The following practices are not part of Agile Kata for Teams:

  • Sprints / Iterations
  • Stories / Product Backlog Items
  • Product or sprint backlogs (because there are no stories, and no iterations)
  • Tasks and tasking
  • Story points / effort estimation
  • Velocity
  • Hours tracking
  • Burn downs or other metrics based on Story Points and Hours tracking

The above items often add little to no value to knowledge work teams operating in a complex domain and can impede flow.

Agile Kata for Teams establishes a minimal foundation for agile teams. Although this may seem counter-intuitive it is often easier to add things to a team process than take them away. With this an Agile Kata established, teams are then free to decide which extra artifacts, meetings or practices would add value to their way of working.

The Kata

The Kata at the heart of Agile Kata for Teams is the ‘Improvement Kata’ that is part of the Lean body of knowledge.

Image Credit: The Lean Institute

In the context of product development, this simple process starts as you would expect, at step 1. A team must understand their direction and the challenge in front of them. A team strategy canvas (described below) is a big asset here.

Step 2 is to grasp the current condition. This step speaks to context, the team needs to understand their environment and how they are currently interacting with this environment.

In step 3 the team establishes a next target condition. This can be thought of as a team goal. The team must understand where it wants to be and by when.

The final step, step 4 is to do the work required to reach the step 3 goal. Having reached the goal, the process starts again.

The scale and timeframe of these steps is up to the team. It can be helpful as a focusing tool to set a time expectation to meet the target condition.

Although having multiple ‘katas’ running in parallel is possible (which could be achieve by one team running multiple katas or by sub-teaming) this practice is not recommended, as the spirit of Agile Kata for Teams is that is is a collaborative full-team endeavor. By reducing Work In Progress, flow is improved.

Agile Kata for Teams Artifact

Agile Kata for Teams has one artifact

1. Team Strategy Map

As an organization needs a strategy so do individual teams. The team strategy should be in alignment with the wider strategies the team interacts with. The team strategy map is a visualized team mental model of the environment the team operates in. For supporting theory as to why this is seen as a required artifact see Wardley Mapping and Roger Martins ‘where to play / how to win’ work.

The team strategy map will include other teams and areas the team interacts with, opportunities, impediments and whatever else is relevant to the team’s objectives. The team strategy map may consist of one or more artifacts, the key is that this artifact or artifacts are visual and created collaboratively by the team. In fact the process of creating this map is sometimes more valuable than the map itself.

Agile Kata for Teams and Recurring Meetings

Agile Kata for Teams doesn’t specify any recurring meetings. However recurring meetings can be useful from the pragmatic point of view that people’s calendars in a busy working environment fill up quickly. So for example if the team have met the target condition, and need to meet together to establish a new target condition then having a daily synchronizing meeting in the team calendar can be useful

Agile Kata for Teams Accountability

Because Agile Kata for Teams does away with traditional control and tracking instruments like stories and hours-based burn downs, the question may be asked as to how accountability works for teams running Agile Kata. Accountability is achieved by:

1. Agile culture of team ownership. As previously stated, Agile Kata for Teams requires a foundation of an agile mindset, and fundamental agile practices such as small, self-organizing teams. No amount of control mechanisms will achieve anything near the results that a team who feel a strong sense of ownership can achieve.

2. Organizational Targets. A team does not work in a vacuum. Teams should be accountable either as a single team or in conjunction with other teams for achieving organization outcomes.

3. Regular reviews. If desired a regular review can be established which enables all stakeholders and any interested party to regularly observe the progress the team is making and the decisions the team is taking

Agile Kata for Teams is offered without restrictions

Feel free to use and modify this team process as you see fit.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Below a very incomplete list of some of the more common questions and responses regarding this team method.

What sources does Agile Kata for Teams draw on?

Agile Kata for Teams builds on the foundational work of Mike Rother and his work on Toyota Kata / Improvement Kata

Agile Kata for Teams also has synergies with the wider Agile Kata movement

Will this work for all teams?

As per the Cynefin model, teams that do obvious / complicated work may benefit more from another method such as Scrum (or adapted Scrum) or Kanban or a hybrid approach. As a very rough rule of thumb if a team responds to requests (e.g. from internal or external customers) their work tends more towards the obvious zone (which is not to diminish the challenge or importance of the work). A team working on a project, where projects of that type have been done before may be more in the complicated zone and product teams who hold their own roadmap tend to be more in the complex zone, particularly when the team is starting on the product discovery journey.

Can Agile Kata for Teams work with other frameworks like Scrum and SAFe?

Realistically Agile Kata for Teams will not work well with Scrum — for example Agile Kata for Teams does not have iterations, whereas Scrum is founded on the concept of iterations. In terms of wider ‘all of business’ type frameworks (sometimes called “scaling frameworks”) Agile Kata for Teams is deliberately neutral. It is a team process that can flex and adapt to any scaling framework.

Your Cynefin Graphic has a gap in the ‘Complex’ zone. What fits there?

In my view teams should draw on agile practices and meetings as needed in this zone. I may have more to say on this in a separate blog at some stage

What about roles in Agile Kata for Teams?

Agile Kata for Teams is neutral on roles. However to implement the method successfully there will need to be a coach or similar role to stand behind the method and to teach it

What about team dynamics — the human side of how we show up as part of a team?

In my experience this is key. To think that process alone will move a team into the high performance zone is naïve. To be clear Agile Kata for Teams is a team process, it has nothing to say on team dynamics. Although process and team dynamics are separate, they are also related. For example a rigid “clunky” process can put a drag on team dynamics. By the same token a high performing team can often achieve results in spite of an ill-fitting process.

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