Sente and Gote in Personal Kanban

gote Sometimes your relationship to work is initiative based, other times it is reactive.  This is simply the nature of work. It is normal, and nothing - not personal kanban, not GTD - is going to change that.

In the game “Go” (“Weiqi” in Chinese) there are balanced strategic concepts for the natural ebbs and flows of taking the initiative or reacting to a change in a situation.  “Sente” is the term for the initiative, “Gote” is the term for being reactive.

In English, we’d be tempted to equate these to Offense and Defense.  However, there’s a subtle difference here. The word “defense” has a few connotations we’d like to avoid when working. One is that you are on the defensive when you’ve lost control of something. The other is that the goal of your defensive strategy is to quickly regain an offensive strategy.

This comes from the animal brain inside us all. Reaction is the gazelle taking flight when the cheetah springs forth. Reaction, for human beings, naturally caries a fight or flight response.

In Go, Sente and Gote positions are perfectly acceptable at all times. There are Go Masters who can win a game and play almost entirely from a Gote position. The Sensei knows that reaction is itself an action.

Why is this important?

Life comes at you fast. The nature of personal work is that some days are quiet, comfortable, and predictable. They are yard work or cleaning the house. Systematic and reassuring. Other days your water heater explodes and covers your basement in water, steam and destruction.

Some days you are at work, methodically finishing up your report and other days you are surprised to get a report back with particularly nasty comments and an unrealistic deadline to fix it.

On days like this we realize that life doesn’t always respect our personal goals. Mopping up water and pulling down saturated wall board isn’t helping us achieve our goal of learning Spanish. This makes us feel like we are on the English term defensive, and that upsets us.  We wanted to learn Spanish by Tuesday and now we have to wait.

Well, this is why most businesses fail. It’s why bosses are cranky.  It’s why people don’t feel they get what they want from consultants.  It’s why that damn plumber is STILL HERE installing the dishwasher.

Life is, by its very nature, chaotic. We’re lucky that it is predictably so, but it still does not adhere to our plans. Whether you are doing Sente or Gote work, the work needs to be done. The best way to assure rapid and effective completion is to look past the emotions of “defensive” and accept Gote into the attainment of your goals.

What kanban seeks to do is visualize how your work is actually done. It actually accounts for exploding water heaters and other unexpected events because, over time, your throughput will reflect these.

So, say you have 20 projects at home and they have an average cycle time of 4 weeks from conception to completion.  The mean time to completion though, might only be 2 weeks.  There were a few outliers in there that took 6 or 8 due to unforseen events.

What you know from this is that you have a maximum of 8 weeks to complete a household project, it’ll usually be done around 2 and that 6 is a very safe number to promise completion by, with 8 being virtually guaranteed.  As you notice this, you can start to examine why those 8s are happening.

I’d be willing to bet those 8s are projects that developed a defensive posture and were delayed due to emotional reasons. In short, they were shelved because they became too hard to finish. Well, those unfinished projects mount up and procrastination has a price. You now have a 2 to 8 week variance in the time it takes you to finish something around the house.

So we can examine those projects. Are the 8 week ones just more complex? Do they involving cleaning? Yard work? Being outside when the chatty neighbor might want to chew your ear off? Are they perhaps even unimportant?

When you find the commonalities in the outliers, you can then develop Gote strategies.  As I said, Go Masters are unphased by adopting a Gote posture because there are deep and tested strategies for achieving victory from Gote maneuvers. Part of this is tactical series of moves that undo an offensive maneuver by your opponent, but the other part is mental. Reaction to events whether on the Go board or in life in general is natural.  Acceptance of this natural relationship calms the fight / flight response in our animal brains and allows us to quickly and effectively deal with the unexpected work. This reduces the time to completion, shrinks our cycle time, and eliminates outliers.

Be calm, deal with the issues, reduce variance.