How to build agile change capability

by Jun 15, 2020

  • How we build change capability changes over time
  • Agile organisations require a first principles approach to this challenge
  • 7 years on, I’ve shifted on how I do this. This is not a bad thing!

How to build agile change capability?

About 7 years ago, I wrote a blog post on how to build change capability which became an important chapter in my book Conversations of Change: A guide to workplace change. Looking back on it, it stands up reasonably well – although there are some important shifts to recognise in context of our more agile operating environments.

First Principles

I started off with recognising there were fundamentally three questions that informs our quest of building change capability:

  • What does it take for the organisation to be highly capable of change?
  • What does it take for our managers to be highly capable of change?
  • What does it take for our people to be highly capable of change?

I don’t think this changes. Infact, what I now recognise is that I was using a “First principles” approach way back then! First principles is a common approach in agile organisations, you often hear the mantra ‘principles over process’. It refers to a reasoning logic derived from Aristiotle and used in most scientific inquuiry. The appeal in agile environments is a ‘first principles’ approach lightens the cognitive load and simplifies complex inquiry. Lightening the load and simplifying approaches makes you go faster,. 

Stays the same or changes?

So let’s look at what I said seven years ago and if it still stands or if it changes.

Then: We need an organising structure for change management – this might be a governance model, a centre of excellence, or a centralised portfolio or internal consultancy

Now: Changes – ensure an executive is on the hook for successful change and build change check-offs into governance and risk frameworks.

Then: Change management as a central construct in the learning and development systems (induction, internal courses, mentoring)

Now: Stays the same It can’t be everybody’s business if they have not been taught and refreshed on it! What does change though, is the mode of learning and development. This has changed significantly in the last seven years, with a greater focus on micro-learning, just-in-time learning, peer education, episodic learning and ‘test & learn’.

Then: Change management as a central construct in the human resources systems (recruiting, performance management, and recognition)

Now: Stays the same – don’t get hung up on the ‘management’, focus on the ‘change’. It is also critically important to work with HR on the mindset change associated with business agility. They need to go first, otherwise all of the really important capability building mechanisms lag.

Then: Change as a cultural imprint within the leadership – lived values of innovation, agility, and of course, people.

Now: No change – if anything it is amplified.

Then: Common supporting toolkits, frameworks, processes and templates that enable people to carry out successful change

Now: Changes a little. Might be more useful to agree on principles and give people flexibility in process and tools. Beware the financial wastage of duplication though.

Then: A multi-level framework that distinguishes between levels of capability (first order skills, second order and so forth, think Quinn’s master and novice distinction).

Now: Changes a little. Doesn’t have to be change management specific roles, but useful for making it everybody’s business. Retain change management expertise in roles of advisory, coaching or internal consultancy

New additions to building agile change capability


So what would I add now, with the benefit of more experience in building change capabilty in agile organisations.

You cannot underscore the neurological difficulty of working in an organisation that is embracing agility. Yes, our brains are plastic, and we can ‘rewire’ and build our tolerance and resilience for change, but it does not happen quickly, or quickly enough for most of the workforce.

For this reason, these days I include mindfulness, and brain-friendly practices as part of the change capability building.

The other is the recognition of pyschological safety – building new capabilities is inherently risky. So there needs to be an accountability from leadership of what their role is in creating an environment where it is safe to learn.

I’m curious: what’s missing in this list? What would you add to it?




A change management Jiminy Cricket, sitting on your shoulder coaching you on the way forward. I know you’re capable of greatness. So drop me a line.


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