What we need to know about agile we learnt from change management

Jun 24, 2018 | Agile

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Agile is a software development approach.  However, it is now applied not just in software development but also features prominently in project management and operations management. With the increasing popularity of agile, change practitioners are also rushing to re-position and tailor their work to support the agile environment.

On top of the basic agile ‘manifesto’ that outlines agile principles, there are now numerous organizations providing the technicalities of how to implement and support agile.  Many are overwhelmed by the various practices such as scrum, kanban, refactoring, etc. Agile may be applied to a project team, program, or portfolio level.

I went through the Scaled Agile certification process and was amazed at how much basic common change principles are embedded within the agile approach. Through the multi-day training course, case studies and the examination, I was quite interested in how a lot of foundational change principles that are common sense for us in change management, are somehow ‘new’ for technical leads or project managers.  Agile incorporates what change managers have been calling out all along.  To read about how Ray and Charles Eames showed us agile project delivery click here.

What are some of the foundational change management principles incorporated within agile?

Individual interactions over processes and tools

The nature of technology environments is that technical professionals are valued by their technical know-how.  Therefore, when there are problems and opportunities for improvement the first that comes to mind is usually a technical fix.  We all know of Technology departments that are fantastic in designing technical solutions and features to resolve problems.

However, the agile manifesto is focused on people and interactions.  Teams work best when there is constant interaction to ensure effective communication, clarity and understanding of the work at hand.   Processes and tools can resolve problems when the teams and people that develop them are clear and aligned.  Processes and tools are also to be used by people.  So testing to what extent these meet people needs will determine their success.

This principle is music to our ears as Change Managers have always been proponents of influencing the project team to focus on people and behaviours, rather than systems and processes.  People are the centre of what Change Management is about and this principle, as a key tenet of agile, highlights the role of people and behaviours.

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Early involvement of stakeholders

Agile projects can move fast.  As a result, it is critical to bring people together early in the project development lifecycle to ensure there is clear alignment and understanding.  Moreover, it helps to foster team relationships early on. Typical practices include bringing a wide range of stakeholders including project sponsor, subject matter experts, technical leads, change lead, business leads, etc. early in the project inception stage in workshops.  Assumptions are drawn out.  Expectations are set.  Relationships are built.  This then sets the stage for effective team performance.

Change practitioners have always touted engaging stakeholders early on to ensure buy-in and alignment.  This goes beyond just formal communication.  This is about having a discussion, a dialogue and being able to test assumptions to drive full clarity early on across the project team.

Empowering team members

Traditionally the project manager would be the key decision maker in all aspects of the project including solution features and which member works on which piece of work.  This traditional command and control style has now given way to a more empowering approach of managing a team and getting a better outcome … from having teams make most of the decisions about the solution and its features.

An inherent part of agile is about enabling decisions to be made at the level where those roles have the most information at hand about the subject.  For example, rather than the project manager making the decision about what the solution looks like, the team who are involved in the details of the solution more than anyone else would make those decisions as a team. In fact, effective agile teams are often self-organized.  The project manager’s role is about coaching and enabling versus making decisions on behalf of the team.  His/Her role is about clearing the way so that there are no obstacles to complete the work effectively.

The work of change managers have always focused on team dynamics and employee empowerment is a foundational principle for team development and engagement.  A part of the change manager’s role is supporting the development and functioning of the project team.  This involves designing the role in a way that maximizes engagement and empowerment.

Designing the right organization leadership is also high on the agenda of Change Management.  Open and autocratic leadership means that the leader encourages innovation, experimentation, and open discussion about the work at hand.

Cross collaboration

Effective agile projects are based on the design of having team members of different disciplines, often from different departments, collaborating to achieve an outcome.  The diversity of having team members from different disciplines working together brings different perspectives.   Hence more innovative ideas are generated than having one team where everyone approaches the problem in the same way due to similar functional backgrounds and skill set.

Agile practices to support cross-collaboration include cross-team daily stand-ups, release planning, retrospectives, etc.  These practices require that different disciplines come together to contribute to the project.

A constant challenge and focus for Change Management is on fighting silos and promoting collaborative behaviors toward the project end state.  change managers typically achieve this through workshops, communication, campaigns, and influencing leaders and the initiative sponsor. We also do this through role design and fostering the right culture and behaviours.

Design bite-sized changes

One of the most fundamental agile principles is the idea that rather than launching a very large big-bang approach to change, it is better to break down the changes into smaller pieces.  The change should be iterative, incorporating continuous learning and improvement.  In this way, the risk of big failure is avoided and replaced by much smaller failure risks.

Change Management is concerned with matching the size of the change with the change capability and capacity of the impacted audience groups.  Bite-sized changes are easier to digest for users.  We avoid the risk of change fatigue and disrupting business-as-usual.  Change managers intuitively assess the ability of users to accept changes.  Smaller pieces of changes are always more palatable than large big changes.


Agile acknowledges very explicitly that the ultimate responsibility for the adoption, success and ongoing improvement of lean practices lies within an organization’s manager and leaders.  The leaders are responsible for steering the organization toward agile and lean behaviours. This responsibility cannot be delegated. Leading agile involves role-modeling the right behaviours, providing the right environment for teams and ensuring that there is continuous team learning.

So, for those who come from a more technical background and are learning about agile – look no further than foundational change management principles to truly understand many of the core agile principles.  For those in Change Management, do not be overwhelmed by the various agile jargon and the various technicalities and practices.  Look into the core change principles you already know and preach before supplementing these with agile practices.   Let these be the foundation as you practice agile, as agile is more about the principles and the mindset, than the technicalities and peculiar practices.

To check out our Ultimate guide to agile for change managers click here.


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