I typically hear this kind of question from a number of agile coaches and those supporting “agile transformation” activities. The reality is that most agile coaches are not equipped to do this kind of work as they’re used to dealing with team level problems. The so called “frozen middle” are the layers of management – so in order to unlock them, we’re going to have to start to talk about how to “manage” teams and organisations in an agile way.

First of all, let’s set some context. This approach is really focusing on organisations that focus on “knowledge work”. That is, they’re using what I refer to as the “neck-top computer” to solve problems, create products and provide services for their customers. This is human centric and although we may use computers & technology to solve the problems, the key is the people creating those solutions. Usually, this is in the form of intellectual property and involves the creation or modification of various forms of intellectual property. For those in other industries that predominantly involves the physical aspects, such as construction or manufacturing, this does not necessarily apply to that kind of work (but it may apply to those aspects of the business that involve knowledge work – eg finance, legal, HR etc).

The management layer, particularly in medium to large organisations, has been created and evolved usually over many years or decades. Many of the processes and practices were put in place at some point in time for good reasons that may still be valid. First of all, we need to understand the context and the problems that you’re trying to solve – but we need to put this in the perspective of those in this management layer. How do they set and meet expectations? What are they being measured on? What management levers to they have to pull? Many agile transformations start with reorganising the structure of the organisation, however this is usually counter productive because you’re not necessarily dealing with the underlying problems that created the “frozen” aspect. Indeed, if you do a large reorganisation, you’re competitors are probably smiling thinking “they’re going to be busy distracting themselves for the next 6-12 months, we can take advantage of this”. If you’re undergoing this kind of change right now, come back to this in 12 months or so because I’m guessing you’ll still be facing these issues.

If you start to talk to the management layer about their specific problems and start to address them, you’ll both gain credibility and also have some practical benefits from the changes. But you’re probably thinking “how do I do that?”. This is the first step of any kanban implementation – understanding the points of dissatisfaction and addressing them. This is how to start thawing out the frozen middle. Often times there are problems like:

  • I can’t see / don’t understand what’s going on
  • I’m not sure of the team / group’s capacity
  • Are we predictable in our delivery?
  • Can I make reliable commitments?
  • There’s an existing policy / rule we have to follow

The next thing you need to know as a coach / transformation agent is that there are a lot of management practices that are firmly rooted in the 19th & 20th century. They’re not really designed for 21st century knowledge work. The key to this is that you need to be able to connect with managers of this understanding an alternative way to manage – the way they can “manage flow”. Many of the techniques are quite different and when you use this lens you’ll note that a number of the older practices are part of the reason for the existing problem and why the middle has become “frozen”. Through this, you’ll start to see where the problems / bottlenecks / blockers are to your organisations delivery capability. Seeing and improving this will lead to greater organisational agility. We cover this off in our Kanban System Design and Kanban Systems Improvement courses in more detail.

But why should the manager’s listen to you with this new management style? You need to understand what their motivations are – and it will be different for different managers. Understanding their motivations and giving being able to answer “What’s in it for me” for each of them is key to continuing to thaw out that permafrost. You can’t change everything overnight, but you can start to move them to a greater level of maturity more gradually. You just need to understand the change levers that are at your disposal. The reality is that it’s taken years / decades to create the existing system of work – you’re not going to be able to change it overnight, but it can start to evolve. We cover off these topics in the Kanban Maturity Model course, where you can learn how to help managers enable greater flow and maturity through their organisation.

For any agile coaches out there, if you’re coming across a “frozen middle” problem, please consider how agile management should really work. If you’re going to go into this space you really should be equipped with the at least the Kanban Management Professional if not the Kanban Coaching Professional capability to help you navigate those frozen seas. For those of you who wish to learn more about how Kanban can help you unlock the frozen middle, please sign up to our newsletter.


This is the final of the three Kanban Change Management Principles. Often this may start to emerge early in the process with a few leaders willing to try the Kanban journey. However, in order for it to be truly successful those initial leaders must be participant to making the emergence of leadership at all levels.

Why would this be necessary? Essentially, the Kanban process is evolutionary and will require a number of changes over a sustained period of time so that the organisation will continue to evolve to be more fit for purpose and resilient in the face of changing market conditions. In order for that to happen, the acts of leadership should not be focused on one or two individuals – this will not scale. In order to get the most change, we need to encourage others to play a part in this goal. A friend of mine once commented that he didn’t want just one brain (his) directing 20 other people – he much preferred having the 20 completely engaged people and thinking for themselves solving a problem.

So, what is leadership? In my view there are a few key points to leadership:

  1. Vision
  2. Courage


Leaders must have a vision as to the direction for the group and help move the team / organisation towards that vision. This is also where we can start to see leadership at all levels. Senior leaders tend to focus on the larger strategic vision for the organisation and how they can start to innovate towards or transform the organisation to fit that new vision. Individual contributors can have a vision for how they are going to implement things. Often the people who are “at the coalface” have a far better understanding of how things work day to day and are the source of many smaller improvements. The middle layer of management connect and coordinate the parts towards achieving the goal – having a vision for how this can be improved often has great benefit to an organisation.


They must have and display acts of courage. Making changes is often difficult – you may be going against the status quo and learned memory of an organisation, so you will need to be able to cut through the existing malaise to make progress. Acts of courage can come in small sizes as well – the act of making your work or problems visible is often a difficult first step because there might be people concerned for their jobs or bonuses preventing the transparency. Making these small changes should be encouraged and rewarded because they help catalyse larger improvements based on new information. Often the first change is to make it safe for others to make further changes and encourage other leaders to emerge.

Encouraging acts of leadership at all levels is probably one of the hardest and more sustained parts of the Kanban Change Principles. Look out for when your people are showing vision and / or courage and ensure that you don’t stifle this behaviour. Make it safe and appreciated – sometimes it’s as simple as just saying thanks.

If you want the change to scale, then it must become a key part of Kanban journey – so start thinking about it now if you haven’t already. These changes will ultimately make your organisation more fit for purpose and less fragile, plus it also has the bonus side effect of improving the engagement of your employees.

See also: Start with what you do now, Agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change


This is the first in what will be a series of short articles about some of the key aspects of Kanban and how it can help you.

Agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change

There are many aspects of this statement that I really like, in particular the evolutionary change aspect. This is a clear differentiator between Kanban and many of the other agile methods / frameworks out there, many of which prescribe that you will first need a series of larger disruptive changes to structure and roles.

Improvements are often small and continual, but the cumulative effect of many small changes can move mountains. In some cases, however, you may require some help from management to remove larger systemic bottlenecks and problems from your process. I see both of these as evolutionary changes – some are by their nature small, but some evolutions will require a little more effort to manifest. Leadership here is a key component – sometimes these changes are hard and will require some courage to start to implement.


All improvements require a change, however not all changes are improvements. Thus, there is a notion that we have to be active in this activity, not passive. Additionally, there is a feedback loop here. Often, we are dealing with complex or at the very least complicated systems and our hypothesis on the effect of a change may not necessarily prove to be true. In this case, some of the evolutions will need to be reverted / dampened down whilst others will need to be solidified and / or amplified. A key part of evolutionary change is the feedback loop and understanding which changes are effective as improvements and which are not. Of course, one size will not fit all, so you will have to look for improvements that will work in your context.

Another key aspect of this statement is the first word – agree. It implies that a level of discussion and consensus needs to take place before we start down this path. Having these foundations in place can avoid a great deal of resistance to the change down the track. At a very basic level you’re letting people know about what the change is and what to expect so they can understand and be prepared for it. However, there’s also another aspect to this where we want people to actually be involved in the change – having the agreement up front about the direction and mechanism for the changes will assist with this. Some transformations rely on a tell approach, however if you try the alternative Kanban approach, you’ll no doubt find that your change will be more effective in the long term. Sometimes it’s just a simple conversation, but other times it can take some time – particularly if the changes are the larger management led ones.

Evolutionary change can be a wonderful enabler for your organisation to grow to provide products and services that are fit for your customer’s purpose. What’s really important is to start to weave into the culture of the organisation a sense and need of continuous improvement so your organisation will itself evolve to become truly adaptive, whilst not running the risk of over-reaching with change. One of the key aspects of Kanban is the evolutionary change approach and I hope you will agree that this can be a lower risk way of introducing the required improvements into your organisation.

See also: Start with what you do now, Encourage acts of leadership at all levels


This is the first in what will be a series of short articles about some of the key aspects of Kanban and how it can help you.

Start with what you do now

This is one of my favourite aspects of Kanban – the “Start with what you do now” change management principle built into Kanban. It’s quite simple and it engenders a foundation of respect for the current organisation that some change initiatives ignore – particularly some of the agile frameworks / methods where it is noticeably missing. I guess this is one of the distinguishing points of the Kanban method – it has an aspect of change management built into it.

There are a couple of additional points worth mentioning that expand on this:

“Understand current processes as they are practiced”
“Respect existing roles and job titles”

One of the key benefits of this kind of approach is that you acknowledge the current organisation and the people in it. “What you do now” has in some way been successful up until now – if not your organisation would likely have gone out of business. The purpose and customers may have changed over time and we can start to make adjustments towards this new purpose, but for now we need to acknowledge the present state. By making such an acknowledgement up front, you’re not going to get people within the organisation off-side when you encourage them to start to make incremental improvements (more on this in a later post). I often get feedback during my Kanban courses that people really love the idea of starting where they are right now.

By respecting the roles and job titles as they currently exist in the organisation, Kanban changes tend to have a low aspect of resistance. People are less threatened and often open to conversation as to how they can be a part of making their system of work better for all involved. That is, it’s often not just the customers that will benefit from this, but the teams involved in doing the work. I find as a coach going in to an organisation, that by using this kind of approach, I avoid a lot of problems before they arise.

Furthermore, with the aspect that we understand current processes as they are practiced tends to be very investigative and requires a curious mind. It should preclude jumping to conclusions as to what the cause(s) of the key issues really are (often this involves symptoms rather than causes of problems). Rather, this will allow us to get a better understanding into the why the problems really exist and to come up with appropriate solutions to those problems based on the specific needs of the contextual domain. Thus, your journey is unique and you’d be doing your organisation a disservice if you just “follow a pattern” to a “standard” end goal. Indeed, how are you competitive if you’re just doing what everyone else is doing?

The bar for change using Kanban has intentionally been set quite low – it allows you to get started rapidly without the large reorganisations and disruptions that other methods often require. That’s not to say you can start to make changes – evolutionary change is a central part to this and will be covered in a subsequent post.

See also: Agree to pursue improvement through evolutionary change, Encourage acts of leadership at all levels