How to Adapt Change Management to an Agile Approach

November 6, 2017

How to Adapt Change Management to an Agile Approach

Agile methods and principles are enjoying increasingly widespread adoption in today’s business environment. In contrast, most change management techniques were developed from approaches that are linear rather than Agile, such as waterfall development or project management. This begs the question: do traditional processes and approaches to change management work in an Agile environment?

Approaching Change Management Differently

Traditional approaches to change management typically employ a linear, step-by-step process. The purpose of the change is first defined. Then, key stakeholders are mapped, a communication plan developed, and activities scheduled and planned. Solutions are created and systematically deployed, followed by measurement of impact.

This type of sequential approach is well suited to the culture and work methods of a traditional organization. In the context of an Agile organization, however, it is not dynamic enough to work in a planned, sequential manner. An Agile sprint can be accomplished and minimal work product put into live production and tested for results before even the first step or two of a traditional change management approach is complete.  From an Agile perspective, most traditional change management procedures are too complicated, too slow, or too late.

If Agile ways of working don’t work with traditional change management, the clear solution is to adopt a different approach to change management. Rather than clinging to work processes that take weeks to develop, we need to shift to a real-time, fit-for-purpose approach that meshes with Agile ways of thinking.

Agile is still a developing concept, and organizations display a lot of variability in how they adopt Agile processes and ways of working. Therefore, suggestions for Agile change management are best distilled into general principles:

Taking a Real Time Approach to Managing Organization Change

The 12 Principles behind the Agile Manifesto emphasize doing things in real time. A fast, face-to-face approach is preferred. Change leaders should therefore look to include or employ change approaches and tools that happen live and in real time. They should also look for opportunities for the Agile team to incorporate change management into the work itself.

For example, conventional software development calls for first developing a new system, then testing it and prepping for launch before the change management team is ever called in to train users on how to use or understand it. In an Agile way of working, change management team members could work alongside or as part of the development team to embed training instructions into the code documentation from the get-go. Incorporating intuitive functionality and/or built-in prompts and guidance could even preclude the need for a separate training event – in essence designing and developing for change adoption.

Taking a Fit for Purpose Approach

 “Fit for purpose” is a classic Agile term referring to a lean solution that is not subject to bloat (and rendered inefficient) with unnecessary features or functionality. Fit for purpose can easily be applied to change management. This may mean, however, forgoing the traditional wealth of project plans, spreadsheets, surveys, and analyses in order to adopt a philosophy of “good enough.”

For example, there may not be time to develop a fully realized communications plan as part of your change approach. In such a scenario, the best approach may be to identify 70-80% of stakeholders along with the minimal messaging needed to get across to them before rolling out a minimally viable solution – the Agile term for a deliverable.

In an Agile organization, change management needs to adopt a more flexible approach.


Using What’s Available

Agile ways of working happen in the moment and don’t always allow for advance planning. Waiting to see how an Agile project will unfold or what it may need next can create delays or missed opportunities. Therefore, an Agile change management team needs to maintain continuous awareness of the existing environment in which the Agile sprints are taking place, and leverage existing platforms and structures as appropriate.

Take social media, for example. Whether public (such as a LinkedIn company page), or private (such as a company intranet site), social sites are ready-made platforms that can be utilized at a moment’s notice to facilitate communication for the Agile change management team, project or process.

Such platforms are not limited to the technological. They can include social groups or physical structures as well. For instance, it is common for companies to have meeting areas, such as lounge or cafeteria space, that are largely underutilized. Change management leaders may want to consider how an Agile team could make use of that space not only for their own work, but to communicate about their work in a physical way.

A few years back we worked with a media company that was situated in a building that contained a stair-step atrium overlooking five floors. The change team used this space to solve the problem of how to communicate what they were doing to the rest of the company. Each floor of the atrium was used to symbolize a decade of time and was decorated with items from that decade. In this way, the space was used to illustrate in a physical manner the changes that were being made, in the context of the many changes the organization had successfully undergone in the past. While the change team could have used a number of other tactics—such as company meetings, fliers, videos, or posters—to communicate with the rest of the company, they chose to accomplish their goal by utilizing an existing platform: the physical building they occupied. The results were eye-catching and successful.

In an Agile organization, change management needs to adopt a more flexible approach. Change leaders can accomplish this by creatively and proactively assessing and analyzing available resources as well as obstacles and/or opportunities the Agile team may face.

The Authors: 

Principal of AlignOrg Solutions, Reed Deshler specializes in developing strategic organization designs and helping companies bring them to fruition. He has guided organizations, including 3M, Abbott, Hertz, Chevron, Cisco, and General Mills through change successfully and helped them solve complex organizational challenges. Reed is co-author of Mastering the Cube: Overcoming Stumbling Blocks and Building an Organization that Works. He regularly writes and speaks on issues related to organization transformation and ways to implement—and create buy-in—among stakeholders for new business designs.

To learn more about Agile organization design, download AlignOrg Solutions’ complimentary guide, Unleashing the Power of Agile: Organization Design Implications