Saana Ström: 7 principles for succeeding in an agile change*

What is change management in an agile change?

In Agile as it’s purist form, we believe that when a motivation comes from the person itself the change will happen without any change management. The idea behind this is that when you can develop things that are important to you, you have the motivation to make the change happen. Change management is seen as something you needed in case of change resistance and in this kind of a case there is no change resistance. Because the change starts from you, you are willing to drive the change proactively.

But have you ever been in this kind of situation? You have been thinking that you would like to start jogging and you are kind of motivated to do that too. However, for some reason you just have not succeeded in starting jogging yet. For some reason you never seem to have time for that… Until your friend comes and asks you to start jogging with her.

She is very active person and enthusiastic about jogging and starts to organize jogging dates with you. And there you go! Suddenly you have found time for jogging, thanks to your friend! That’s because now it’s harder to make excuses not to go because there are other people involved. There are also other people who invest their time for your jogging session. In addition, you get the jogging done more easily because there is somebody who is pulling you to do so even when you sometimes feel tired.

So let’s list the key things why you finally started jogging:

  • There was somebody to coordinate and organize the jogging events
  • There were also other people involved
  • There was somebody to pull you gently towards your goal and boost the excitement for jogging

The example shows why I believe that some kind of a coordination, facilitation, helping to get the change done and boosting the excitement for change is needed also in case of an agile change, that believes in proactivity and self directioning. That I call change management.

And unfortunately, still in many cases inside the organizations the fact is that “We want to become agile!” is not what comes from the people who we would like to become agile. In that case, you need even more help to sell the idea of the agile for the people so that they would end up to a situation that they would really feel that agile is something they would like to learn more about. In that kind of cases even more help for driving the change is needed. That again would be calculated as change management.

Maybe at the end that was also your case in jogging? Maybe at the end you didn’t want jogging that much after all in the beginning? So you needed somebody to sell you the idea, pull you towards your goal and create the excitement for jogging?

How a big company can succeed in agile change?

Noe let’s take a look at this topic from the company point of view. How do you succeed in agile change as a big company? What kind of change management activities are needed? Here is the list of the key principles that enable a successful agile change based on the learnings I have got regarding agile change.

  1. Put people in the center
    First of all start by thinking the change from the people point of view. Put the people in the center who will be affected by the change. Not just the leaders, but the ones who will perform the work everyday and use the new mindset everyday when making decisions. At the end people make the change and if they are not willing to change their everyday habits, the change does not happen. This is a basic fact that works in any kind of change.
  2. Allocate time
    People need time to adopt the change. Especially in agile, that is mostly a big mindset change. Mindset change takes more time than changing your ways of working. Like in our example if you don’t take time for jogging, it never happens. This is another basic fact that applies to any kind of a change.
  3. Train & coach
    Because agile change is a big mindset change, you need training and coaching to understand what is the change we are looking for. To understand what agile really means is actually a learning journey that takes years and training and coaching will be needed along the way.
    In case of a jogging, if you want to improve your technique and become a marathon runner, you would also benefit from training and coaching especially in the beginning. If you have never run it’s beneficial to have somebody to tell you how to take the steps than just starting it from zero with a possibility to start with a wrong technique that easily leads to getting injuries. So also in case of agile change the easiest way is to give intensive training and coaching in the beginning to get you to the right track.
  4. Build mechanism for boosting change
    So in the jogging example you needed your friend to boost you to be able to succeed in your goal: start jogging. You needed somebody else to be involved. In a bigger organization you need a bunch of people who will work to make the change happen – That is what I call a mechanism for change. That mechanism will boost the change in the coffee rooms, communicate, be role models, show how thigs are done, coach etc.
  5. Build change together
    More facts about succeeding in any king of a change: Change is more successful when you do it together with the people who will be affected by the change. Somebody once said that “If you make it, you don’t hate it” or “If you write it, you don’t fight it”. The way to build ownership around the change is to plan the change by yourself. Especially in agile we would like the change to start from the people themselves. So it is even more important in this case to let the people define what is the change for them and how things would work the best for them because they know how the daily life in the company is. This is empowering people which is part of agile thinking.
  6. Ensure support from management
    Then the most important one: the management. The fact is that in the companies where we still have traditional management model, we do what the manager is asking us to do. So if we want to make change happen our managers should support us. And the most important level of the management is the middle management because they affect the most what is done in practise. Too often middle managers are left in the shadow and we concentrate on increasing the knowledge about the change inside upper level managers and employees. We should remember that the middle managers are there in between and if hey are not supporting the change, the change does not happen.
    If we are living in a very agile organization where there is no hierarchy and we have achieved very autonomous and self directed culture where people can set their goals by themselves. Then of course we don’t need to worry about the management. But unfortunately most of the companies are not there yet. (Maybe if you would have been in this point in our jogging example you could have succeeded without any external help. But if you take a hundred people, how likely it is to find hundred persons who are in this level of maturity? So that is exactly the case we were talking about here.)
  7. Lead, coordinate and communicate effectively
    Last but not least: You need somebody to lead, coordinate and communicate. Without that work you would not have started jogging either. The person who did that job was your friend again. Especially in a big company we need somebody or actually a group of people to lead, coordinate and communicate. We need people to get everybody involved, make workshops happen, document the ideas and decisions, get people moving towards the change by leading the way, organize networks to support continuous learning, make sure everybody has heard about the change etc. That doesn’t happen out of the blue. We need to put effort, time and resources for that work.

So here were my tips and best practices for now what I have learned. Thanks for being interested in this topic and reading the blog. I hope you got some new ideas. In the next part of this blog we will take a look at how the tips we learned here are put into the practise. Stay tuned!

*With the word agile change here we mean a transformation towards more agile organization. Agile change might also be interpreted as the way a change is executed, in other words: using agile approach/execution model for implementing any kind of a change. That is also an interesting topic and we will touch that topic later on.