Why is Change Management important for an Agile transformation?

Why is Change Management important for an Agile transformation? Implementing an Agile transformation can require a big shift in thinking and possibly also require changing a well-established corporate culture for many companies.  In general many companies need to move from an excessive emphasis on planning and control to a more flexible and adaptive approach with more emphasis on creativity and innovation in a very uncertain environment.  That requires:

  • Developing a spirit of trust and partnership among all parts of the organization at every level
  • Breaking down organizational barriers that might prevent a collaborative, cross-functional approach
  • Developing a clear, unifying vision for the organization that creates a common purpose that is well-aligned with the company’s business objectives

Those are not easy things to accomplish and creating lasting organizational change is difficult.  People resist change and will naturally revert back to the old, comfortable way of doing things if the change management effort is not successful.

Why is Change Management Important?

Kotter’s Change Management Principles

The best source on this is John Kotter’s book “Leading Change”. Kotter identifies eight errors that companies make in change management initiatives:

    1. “Allowing too Much Complacency” – This probably could be better stated…it isn’t necessarily a matter of “allowing too much complacency”. The real issue is that if there isn’t a feeling of urgency for making a significant change, it will be difficult to get support for making the change.
    2. “Failing to Create a Sufficiently Powerful Guiding Coalition” – Overall leadership is extremely important – all the key leaders have to be on board with making a broad-based, cross-functional change and providing the guiding leadership to make it happen.
    3. “Underestimating the Power of Vision” – A clear vision is needed for what the organization will look like after the change is complete. If there is no vision, it will be difficult to guide the change in the right direction.
    4. Under-communicating the Vision by a Factor of 10 (or 100 or Even 1,000)”. Major change is usually impossible unless most employees are willing to help, often to the point of making short-term sacrifices. But people will not make sacrifices, even if they are unhappy with the status quo, unless they think the potential benefits of change are attractive and unless they really believe that a transformation is possible.”
    5. “Permitting Obstacles to Block the New Vision” – The important points that Kotter brings up are:
      • Implementation of any kind of major change requires action from a large number of people
      • New initiatives fail when employees, even though they embrace a new vision, feel dis empowered by huge obstacles in their paths
      • Occasionally, roadblocks are only in peoples’ heads – In many cases, the blockers are very real
    6. “Failing to Create Short-Term Wins” Many times the best approach is to not take on too much at once but focus on some short-term wins that show progress.
    7. “Declaring Victory Too Soon”
      • People can be tempted to declare victory in a major change effort with the first major performance improvement
      • While celebrating a win is fine, any suggestion that the job is mostly done is generally a terrible mistake
      • Until changes sink down into the company culture(3-10 years) new approaches are fragile and subject to regression
    8. “Neglecting to Anchor Changes Firmly in the Corporate Culture” – Culture and values are extremely important – if people are simply mechanically implementing the change without any real change in corporate culture and values to support it, the change may be somewhat fragile and not long-lasting.

Three Most Critical Principles

All eight of the issues that Kotter has defined are important, but from my experience, there are three that are most critical that most frequently derail an Agile transformation.  These are:

  1. No “Burning Platform” – This is based on Kotter’s first error “Not Creating a Sense of Urgency”.  There needs to be something that creates some urgency about making a change because maintaining the current situation is very painful and untenable.The phrase “burning platform” originated with a fire on an oil-drilling platform off the coast of the United Kingdom some years ago.  The phrase can have several contexts –
    • One context was that there were serious safety issues with the platform that were not addressed until the platform caught fire because there didn’t seem to be a sufficiently urgent need to address them.
    • Another context was that once the platform was on fire, there was an urgent need for the employees to do something to save their own lives – staying on the platform at that point was an untenable situation.
  2. No Vision for the Future – This is based on Kotter’s third error “Underestimating the Power of Vision”.  Taking the time to define a vision for an Agile transformation is extremely important – many people make the mistake of using a one-size-fits-all approach to force-fit a company to some kind of “textbook” model.The best approach is to fit the model to the company’s business and a pure, top-to-bottom Agile approach may or may not be the best fit.  It may require more of a hybrid approach to achieve that kind of alignment, at least in the short-term.
  3. Failing to Show Short-Term Progress – This is based on Kotter’s sixth error “Failing to create short-term wins”.  There are always naysayers and skeptics who will remain on the sidelines waiting to see if the change is likely to be successful before they jump on the bandwagon.  That is why it is important to get started and demonstrate progress as quickly as possible.  From an Agile perspective, it is important to set clearly-defined and measurable goals that show progress and regularly communicate that progress to everyone involved.