The inconvenient truth of agile: you still need change management
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:
- 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.