The inconvenient truth of agile: you still need change management

by | Feb 1, 2020

There are three reasons why you still need change management with agile:

  • Big A Agile privileges customers, not employees
  • Small a agile is truly a transformation for most companies
  • Big A and small a agile makes our brains hurt. 

In a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous (VUCA)  world, change is everybody’s business. Change Management is an oxymoron. You can’t manage change. Change Management is Dead. Constant and uncertain change is now our norm so we should just jolly well be more resilient.  Autonomous teams and fast feedback fixes everything and makes us much more adaptive to change. 

I’m sure you have heard many versions of the above. Headlines from articles and blog posts, most commonly shared by those in the agile community, and those who are not especially familiar with what good change management looks like.  And gee whiz, I love the idea. I love the idea that people are more adaptive to change as we move towards new ways of working. I love the idea that the mindset and behaviours of business agility enable us to surf the waves of uncertainty.  I love the idea that collective change capability has increased to a point where a whole profession is made redundant. Take that change managers! It’s what we have worked for for years!  Except its not true. It doesn’t happen. The inconvenient truth is that quest for agility whether it be strategic, cultural, or operational still requires active and considered change management.  Here’s three reasons why:

  1. Agile with a big A privileges consumers. Nobody is looking at the organisational impacts of increasing velocity of product releases and new platforms and services we are so swiftly, nimbly, and relentlessly producing. The changes being released may be intuitive for the customer looking at a screen (hopefully), but what happens when they call into customer service with a problem with what has been released? We don’t recognise the tension of operations teams who are rewarded on risk reduction and predictability being asked to work with the inefficiency of test and learns.

2. If we move away from Big A agile and the focus on the ceremonies, rituals, and mechanics and look at small a agility, then we need to acknowledge this is a chalk and cheese change for most companies. The cultural elements of agile organisations is in diametric opposition to what has been recognised and rewarded in previous organisational life. You just don’t hand out a book or two, run a few one-day workshops and sheep dip your people in agile. It feels uncomfortable and unsafe for many.

3. Organisational life in a VUCA world is profoundly brain-unfriendly. We are hard-wired to privilege certainty. Mess with that and we get really uncomfortable. Failing fast is often a speedy way to get smacked, minimal viable products bring us under threat with criticism of “not good enough”. While we have found that that neuroplasticity means that our brains can change and we can become more comfortable with constant change it requires extraordinary conditions and a lot of time for that to occur. 

Since September last year I have been co-hosting Executive Breakfasts with the Agile Change Leadership Institute.  The number one recurrent pain point for the 45 senior leaders who have attended is change management. This is expressed as “how do we get our people on board with the changes we are bringing in? How do we convince our peers (other execs) to lead in new ways?” The struggle is real, and even with the best agile consulting support available, these challenges are not being addressed.  Because change management is dead. And change is everybody’s business. 

I get that traditional and more old-fashioned forms of change management are heavy, oppressive, and overly process laden. But here’s the really good news. Change management has evolved along with the rest of the world. There’s a great new cohort of change practitioners that have kept up with the changes and adapted their practices. There’s a whole raft of agile change tools that sit really well within Big A environments. And there’s many good change practitioners who can help you with large scale transformation of a cultural form.  The sooner we recognise the inconvenient truth and seek out those change practitioners who have adapted with the shifts in industry, the sooner you’ll be unlocking the benefits of agility. 

4 Comments

  1. Annette Matters

    As someone who has been pushing the change barrow for many years, I appreciate the acknowledgement that change is a necessary part of any agile delivery. It is the royal “we” that requires clarification.

    I believe Change expertise should sit at the Executive team level, as without a voice at the table, change will continue to be applied at project implementation level, rather than across the organisation to focus on the culture.

    On that basis, it is Chief Executive level that must be role modelling and supporting the change. I have experienced far too many organisations where the senior leaders pay “lip service” to change and their staff reflect that behaviour.

    Agile big and little a, can bring change expertise in at project level however; if the culture does not support the ongoing behaviour for BAU, it is likely to be partially successful at best.

  2. Dr Roger Hilton

    Well articulated Jen. My take is simply that everyone must be willing to be part of the change process and they must be willing to change – be flexible, be conscious, be authentic, be truthful in their communications and be able to truly focus on the customer to continually provide excellence. The cliche “for the world to change I must change” is a critical mantra for everyone.

  3. Annie Audsley

    Love that article Jen – it’s a constant battle, I work exclusively in change for projects (usually IT), so there’s no seat at the exec level, I have no influence over culture and you find yourself mostly not welcome in traditional agile standups – they are ‘technical’ apparently. I’ve had to become rather pushy which is pretty sad really!

  4. Has Razwi

    Love the article. There will always be a need to look after people in times of turmoil. And change practitioners serve this purpose. So what if they or may not be called change managers in the future. Serve the purpose not process.

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