Kanban Adoption is Exploding

Software company VersionOne (now part of Digital.ai) has conducted an annual State of Agile survey for 16 years now, and I thought I'd share a few tidbits from this year's report. While it is still heavily weighted towards the tech sector (where Agile methods are widely used), it is the best long-term gauge we have on Agile adoption overall.

The biggest news for those of us on the Kanban bandwagon: "Kanban use has exploded from 7% in the 14th survey to 56% in the current [16th] survey."

This makes sense in the context of another of the report's findings, that "Agile continues to extend beyond the original software development or IT team to cross-functional teams along the lifecycle, or into other business units such as HR and marketing." 

Without diving too deep on different Agile approaches, suffice it to say that Scrum — a relatively prescriptive framework — has struggled to gain traction outside of software teams (and it's been encountering some challenges even within that user base). Because it is a framework, Scrum presumes that adoptees will reorganize their teams and adhere to a prescriptive meeting cadence; that's a lot of change to implement before you can start seeing its benefits.

Kanban is not a framework, it is a management method. It focuses on evolutionary change, as exemplified by the principle "start with what you do now." That means understanding the current process as actually practices (which is not always as designed), and respecting existing roles, responsibilities, and job titles. This allows organizations — including ones who are using Scrum — to introduce Kanban concepts in a way that makes sense for people. More "do it with you" than "do it to you."

What's nice about Kanban is that it layers well with whatever you're already doing. Scrum teams can use Kanban to do Scrum better. Organizations using the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS, from the book Traction) can use Kanban to improve EOS performance. Same goes for E-Myth, Pumpkin Plan, 12 Week Year, or any other popular business management model. Kanban complements what you're already doing and helps it work better.

Other tidbits from the State of Agile Report:

  • High-performing Agile orgs tend to be people-centric; with flatter hierarchies and teams that are empowered and supported by leadership. That shows up in the results: better places to work, better collaboration, and better alignment to business needs.
  • Just 1% of Agile teams in the survey are using Trello, with most opting for more robust software. (See my recommended technology tools).
  • Agile teams are relatively good at measuring business metrics — and not just financials. They are conducting customer surveys, measuring KPIs and/or OKRs, capturing data about their value stream, and using flow metrics to understand how effectively their business is delivering customer value.
  • The biggest barriers to Agile adoption include:
    • Not enough leadership participation
    • Not enough knowledge about Agile methods
    • Inadequate management support
    • Insufficient training
    • General organizational resistance to change
  • Agile methods are working well for remote or distributed teams; only 2% of survey respondents report working full-time from a company-provided office.

Overall, the report is still pretty tech-team heavy, but it is great to see so many companies bringing Agile methods to other parts of their business. I expect that trend will continue.

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