This year’s Kanban Leadership Retreat (KLRAT), as always, was awesome. In fact, despite sharing some critical feedback during retro session at the very end of the event, I still consider it the best event of the year, hands down. This year I’ve come back home with the biggest homework ever: experiments to try out, ideas to play with, concepts to write down, etc. It means that coming back next year is a no-brainer to me.
One area that you’ll hear a lot about here is Portfolio Kanban. And this was also the subject of my session at the retreat.
One of my goals for KLRAT this year was pushing forward the discussion on Portfolio Kanban. Answering questions like: what are the boundaries of the method? What are the gaps we still need to cover to make Portfolio Kanban thorough? How the implementations on portfolio level are aligned with the method as we know it?
During the session I wanted to talk about all these things. My expectation wasn’t to rule out all the doubts. I assumed that the outcome would include some answers as well as some new questions but overall would bring us to better understanding what Portfolio Kanban is.
I hypothesized that Kanban method with its principles and practices define well the approach we can use on portfolio level. In other words that we don’t need any other definition for Portfolio Kanban than the one we already have for Kanban. This is where we started.
I didn’t want to start with the Kanban definition and look for its possible applications (we would find those, wouldn’t we?). I asked participants for a brain dump practices, actions and techniques that we use manage portfolio. Then we sorted them into six buckets of Kanban practices. For example portfolio overview would be covered by visualization so it went to the visualize bucket, limiting number of ongoing projects would obviously go to the limit WIP bucket, etc.
Of course there were odd balls too. These went to the side as another group. Actually, this one was the most interesting one for me as they pointed us to possible gaps.
Everyone had a chance to briefly explain what they put on the wall and why it went to a specific bucket. Then we used the remaining time to discuss the challenges we see – which questions weren’t addressed and need further work.
There are a few lessons learned from the exercise. I think the most important bit is that the hypothesis was confirmed. I am convinced that using constraints of Kanban method we can neatly define Portfolio Kanban.
Of course the specific techniques will be different. Interpretation of practices will vary too. But the same is true with team level Kanban applications in different contexts.
Things get more interesting once we go deeper into the details. Let’s look at the wall which is the documentation of the session (click for a larger version).
After a glimpse you can see that one bucket is almost empty. Surprisingly enough is the improvement / evolution bucket. Does it mean that we don’t see a match between Kanban method and portfolio management in this aspect? Personally, I think that it would be too quick to draw such conclusions.
An observation made by Klaus Leopold was that quite a bunch of the stickies on the wall that could be placed not only in their original place but also in the improvement / evolution bucket. That’s obviously true. But then I can’t help but thinking that if we were doing the very same exercise with Kanban on team or service level the end result would look different.
I think that the answer is that evolution on a portfolio level involves different behaviors and different tools than on a team level. How exactly? Well, this is one of these loose strings we have after the session, so I don’t have an answer for this. Yet.
Finally, pretty obvious outcome of the session is the list of the challenges we will have to address (or explicitly leave unaddressed) to finalize definition of Portfolio Kanban
Although we aren’t there yet in terms of defining what Portfolio Kanban is going to be, we made a big step forward. And this was exactly what I wanted to achieve. I didn’t want more divergence as I believe we’ve had enough of that so far. I didn’t expect more convergence either. Not just yet. Also I think that the time at KLRAT is just too scarce to spend it discussing the exact definition.
And that is how the end result of our work looked like.
All in all there are going to be follow-up steps – those that will bring convergence. If you are interested in further work on the subject stay tuned.