Agile Change Management - Myth or Three Realities?

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 The two forces driving business transformations today – change management and agile adoption – combine to form the term Agile Change Management.  One might assume that the resulting synthesis is a mythical creature holding all the answers to the transformation challenges we currently face. By examining what the varying realities or scenarios of Change Management actually are today – we aim to get better at delivering effective change going forward.

Update June 2020: Since this article was published more than two years ago, a lot has happened in the world. Namely the COVID-19 crisis, affecting both society and business at their core.

Whilst the key realities mentioned below hold still true, it is the right time to reflect on them again, and also to briefly add a fourth reality.

Table of Contents

Three Realities Played Out

Change Management refers to the processes and tools needed to facilitate the people side of change. It, therefore, entails Organisational Change Management and not project change control.

Agile refers to self-organizing and nimble ways of working that are applied at the iterative delivery level of transformations.

Agile Change Management, also sometimes referred to as Adaptive Change Management, is the process of breaking change into a series of change cycles.  These cycles are then linked to program releases, where once proven as beneficial, transition to full roll-out and operational management.

Adaptive Change Management
Adaptive Change Management

In addressing what this means for an organization on its enterprise transformation journey, three questions or three different realities come to mind.

  1. How can we use Change Management in support of business agility transformations?
  2. How can we use Change Management to support implementing Agile ways of working in an organization?
  3. How can we use Change Management in a nimbler and more agile fashion, in any environment?

Once we have applied Change Management to one of the three scenarios, we can then more easily apply it to the other two.

Change Management as a Driver

Our first driving force in business transformation today is change management. This means borrowing on mind space in order to make people first aware of a change and then bringing them along on the change journey. Yet change management as a practice itself may need to change.

Let’s take an example of fictitious organization ‘X’ where multiple attempts were undertaken to balance a portfolio of change initiatives that ultimately still failed.  The team even engaged the help of a defined and agreed upon selection methodology.  Yet each attempt had been overthrown when people’s ‘pet projects’ were not selected for execution.

Classical Change Management may well have addressed:

  • determining the size, scope, and impact of the change,
  • assessing the organizational maturity and areas impacted,
  • securing Change Management sponsorship and resources, and
  • articulating the effort to align and deliver the change.

However, change management is not just based on individual dynamics. Both individuals and groups need to be considered when thinking about the people side of change. 

Social dynamics (think team and organizational dynamics) or even social philosophy is a key hidden driver behind any decision which can influence a business transformation or innovation.

And it is that notion of ‘philosophy’ that leads on to the next driving force.

Agile’s impact on Change

Ever since the Agile Manifesto was created in 2001, it has significantly influenced how software is developed.  Yet its influence is felt way beyond its original scope.

Agile ways of working adopted outside of software development, and in further project management contexts (like product development or marketing), bring new challenges for Change Management.

“This is largely because the new business transformations are fast-paced, flexible, and business-oriented, and for people to adapt, they must change” (cf. Cockburn 2009).

Team-based development acts within short timeboxes or iterations. This not only changes the way in which a solution is delivered but also changes how the related change must be facilitated and embedded into the organization.

Incremental delivery changes how people are affected and how they need to be accounted for along the change journey. Historically it was possible to both conceive and drive change entirely from the top. However, with the uptake of these collaborative and iterative ways of working, implementing change at additional levels is becoming more and more important.

The need for Adaptive Change Management

With the advent of Agile practices being scaled up to the program and enterprise-level; Change Management in response must move down the organizational hierarchy.  Change Management must be applied at the level at which Agile delivery and its associated change takes place.

Levels of change

Underpinned by definitions from the Change Management Institute (cf. Franklin 2017), these levels of change are:

Strategic / Program Level

The strategic level is where the governance of the overall change is located while the program level where the change practitioners act from. Senior management commitment must drive at this level and inform the other levels.

Local Level

This is where the delivery of the change is taking place. Ideally, you would employ local change agents as a change network.  This ensures a culture of change where everyone is responsible, not just designated change practitioners.

This will require change to be implemented in smaller increments, more frequently, to meet the iterative nature of Agile practices. With an increase of change delivery and its frequency, people must be able to adapt to change – coining the term ‘change agility’.  This will require more support than ever to do so.

A strategic drive

Applying Change Management to a different environment initially does not change its nature. While some activities will be driven at a lower level, some activities will still have to be driven from a higher more strategic level.

These include:

  • what the change is and, particularly, why we must change,
  • assessing the organizational maturity and areas impacted
  • what the expected resistance is and how to increase desire and ability to sustain the change at the lower level
  • securing Change Management sponsorship and resources, and
  • determining what other change is going on in the organization and who is possibly saturated by change.

Hence, one should consider the scope, size, type, complexity, objective, and timing of the change through a Change Readiness Assessment. From this, you may begin to scale and right-size the Change Management approach for the organization. 

Impact, readiness, and reasons for resistance can be iteratively assessed and acted upon, at each level, throughout the life of the change.

With increasing maturity, one can address the underlying change concepts that influence and drive how to customize and scale Agile Change Management efforts. 

The required ability to manage change at both the organizational (strategic) and the local (delivery) level will ‘change’ Change Management. This solidifies why our third reality of making Change Management nimbler and more agile is equally valid.


Guiding and facilitating the change

For this reason, we have developed an Agile Change Management tool for incorporation into our wider existing Change Management Services.  This tool assists with directing and guiding change at both the program and Agile delivery levels. This provides the team with the ability to select the right components to facilitate the change as required.

With change being delivered in smaller increments and not just at once, this allows one to reinforce the change and therefore make it sustainable (cf. Prosci 2017). Aligned with the Agile philosophy, we have developed new mechanisms to measure how well a change is taking hold, to identify and correct gaps, and to celebrate success.


In closing, with the increasing speed of change affecting organizations today, the embedding of more nimbler Change Management activities is impacted in at least three ways:

The effect of change must be continuously managed.

Agility needs to take place at all levels, not just at the bottom with delivery, but also in the middle and on the top. This is simply because change has to happen at all levels.

More emphasis is needed on Portfolio Management.

Strategic change and business as usual operations remain in an ongoing battle, not just for resources. Especially in times of COVID-19, where the focus is on keeping the lights on, we as organizations need to look ahead equally on both strategy and operations.

Increased caution is required to avoid change fatigue.

Change on top of change (i.e saturation within the organization) remains a risk – now more than ever.  The constant barrage of both emergent and sometimes chaotic change needs to be addressed. More importantly, it needs to be aligned with the changes already underway in our organizations.

Finally, It is the social component as the over-arching fourth reality that requires more emphasis still. In times of physical distancing, we also experience social distancing.  This reminds us that the human being is truly a social being. 

In business transformations, both small and large, we have come to realize that personality, actually, the consideration of all diverse personalities as a whole, are key to change success.

Whilst soft skills are important in a traditional (waterfall) change effort, they become the driving reality in any Agile effort. We need to deal with people in order to successfully deal in and change technicalities.

Without empowerment and self-organization firmly in place, Agile change will likely fail.

Agile Change Management is still no mythical creature that resolves all challenges. Thoroughly understanding what the change is and how it can be best driven in an age of Business Agility must be our purpose and the way of helping clients.  There is no change here two years on.

To read more on how to use Change Management to support Agile ways of working, please see our case study: Steering Engineering Agility Capability

This article was writen by Dr. Stefan Bertschi

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