Agile Change Management: A myth or three realities?


If we combine the two forces driving business transformations – change management and agile adoption – one might assume that the resulting synthesis would be a mythical creature who holds all the answers to addressing the challenges we face today. Taking a nimble approach to testing this hypothesis, we find that not all realities can be responded to at once. By examining what these realities of Agile Change Management are, we aim to understand how they can help us get better at delivering effective change.

This article is based on current thinking that we apply at MI-GSO | PCUBED for the benefit of our clients and in making their business transformations a success. On the journey to addressing what Agile Change Management could be and to demystify a concept that comprises two key forces driving transformation today; the following definitions are being applied.

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.

For a complete definition, read our Change Management Guide for 2020.

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

Three Realities

In addressing what Agile Change Management could mean for an organisation on their enterprise transformation journey, three questions that illustrate the underlying problem or three different realities come to mind.

  • How can we use Change Management to support Agile ways of working in enterprise transformations?
  • How can we use Change Management to implement Agile ways of working into an organisation?
  • How can we use Change Management in a nimbler and agile fashion, in any environment?

Whilst in this article we may choose to focus on the first reality of Change Management, it can be said that the other two become a side product of the first. Once we have applied Change Management to one of the three scenarios, we can more easily apply it to the other two.

The shortest introduction to Change Management

Change Management is “an attempt to integrate some of the standard aspects of management consulting (e.g., changing a client’s business strategy, […] or changing the organisational design and structure) with organisation change methods that are based on applied behavioural science, particularly organisational psychology”. This classical definition by Wyatt Warner Burke (2007, p. 47) suggests why classical management consultancies fall behind in the capability to deliver the contemporary individual and organisational change that is so critically important when managing any transformation today. The focus on psychology is too limiting, as both individuals and groups need to be considered when thinking about the people side of change.

Let us illustrate this statement with an example on the resistance to balancing and selecting a strategic portfolio.

Assume a fictitious organisation ‘X’ where multiple attempts have been undertaken to balance the portfolio of change initiatives, even with the help of a jointly defined and agreed selection methodology. Each attempt had been overthrown when people’s ‘pet projects’ ended up below the line and were not selected for execution in the portfolio.

How can this be addressed? The simple answer of employing Change Management is not sufficient here.

Classical Change Management may well address the following:

  • Determining the size, scope and impact of the change,
  • Assessing the organisational maturity and areas impacted,
  • Securing Change Management sponsorship and resources,
  • Articulating the effort for Change Management to align with the above and to deliver the change.

All of this had been done in the above example, but still the organisation failed. At MI-GSO | PCUBED, we have determined that it is not just individual dynamics, but the social dynamics or even social philosophy that is the hidden driver behind any decision that can influence a business transformation or innovation. And it is the notion of ‘philosophy’ that leads on to the next driving force.

The shortest introduction to Agile

Ever since the Agile Manifesto was created in 2001, it has significantly influenced how software is developed, but it has had a much wider influence since. Agile ways of working, adopted outside of software development and in further project management contexts (like product development or marketing), both in strategic change and business as usual operations, 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). Hence why the second reality of using Change Management to implement Agile is equally valid.

With the uptake of collaborative and iterative ways of working, additional levels of implementing change have become more and more important.

Team-based development, which acts within short timeboxes or iterations, not only changes the way in which a solution is delivered, via increments or small batches with the full product only delivered at the very end; it also changes how the related change must be facilitated and embedded into the organisation. Incremental delivery changes how people are affected and how they need to be accounted for along the individual change journey.
Whilst historically it was possible to conceive and drive change entirely from the top, with the uptake of these collaborative and iterative ways of working, additional levels of implementing the change are becoming more and more important

The need for Adaptive Change Management

From hierarchy to local level

With the advent of Agile practices being scaled up to the Programme and finally to the Enterprise level, Change Management in response must move down the organisational hierarchy and apply much more focus at the local level; the level at which Agile delivery and associated change takes place.

In short, at MI-GSO | PCUBED we have identified that this works best if applied at two levels: Define the approach at the top-level and drive through as a continuum, ideally as part of the Programme of work, and right-size the effort at the low-level iterations, especially if an incremental release requires significant intervention to facilitate and embed the change.

Two levels of change

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

  • Strategic level, this is where the governance of the overall change is located, and at the Programme level where the change practitioners act from.  The Programme level is where a summary of all changes is available, including a holistic picture of local impact. Senior management commitment must drive at this level and inform the other level.
  • Local level, this is where the delivery of the change is taking place, ideally employing local change agents and ensuring a culture of change where everyone is responsible for self-organising change, not just the 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 and will require more support than ever to do so.

A strategic drive

The definition of what needs to be addressed in Change Management does not change, and some will still have to be driven from the higher strategic level:

  • What the change is and, particularly, why we must change as an organisation (or part thereof).
  • Determining what other change is going on in the organisation and who is possibly saturated by change.
  • What the expected resistance is and how to increase desire and ability to sustain the change at the lower level.

Applying Change Management to a different environment, initially does not change its nature, hence, one should still consider the scope, size, type, complexity, objective and timing of the Programme of work, through a Change Readiness Assessment from which you may begin to scale and right-size the Change Management approach. Impact, readiness and reasons for resistance are then likely to be assessed and acted upon at various levels throughout the life of the change.

Agile Change Management Scale

What is your people’s readiness for Agile Change Management?

With increasing maturity, one can address the underlying change concepts that influence and drive how to customize and scale these new Change Management efforts. The required ability to manage change at the organisational (strategic) and the local (delivery) level will ‘change’ Change Management, hence solidifying why our third reality of making Change Management nimbler and more agile is equally valid.

This highlights the need for a creature new, not mythical; the response to more Agile ways of working must be matched with a much more flexible style of Change Management.

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, not a stand-alone tool, that assists with directing and guiding change at both the Programme and Agile delivery levels, and providing a selection of 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 as employed, we have developed new mechanisms to measure how well a change is taking hold, to identify and correct gaps and to celebrate success.


With the increasing speed of change affecting organisations today, the embedding of Change Management activities is impacted in at least three ways:

  • There is a continuous effect of change both up – at the Programme level – and down – at the Delivery level – which must be managed across the levels of change.
  • There is more emphasis needed on the balance of strategic change and business as usual operations; and the renewed emergence of Portfolio Management does not come as a surprise.
  • There is increased caution required to avoid change saturation and fatigue, especially at the lower level, where Change Management will be applied aligned in a more nimble and agile fashion.

This initial attempt to demystify a concept of Agile Change Management has indicated that there is no mythical creature that resolves all challenges, however, it has highlighted the need for a creature new, one that embodies a much more adaptive Change Management, necessary to operate in an Agile environment.

The response to more Agile ways of working must be matched with a much more flexible style of Change Management. If Agile scales up into the organisation, then Change Management must move down the organisational hierarchy, and be driven at both the strategic Programme and local delivery levels. All three realities of Agile Change Management, not just the initial one, will be required to achieve this successfully.

To read more on how to use Change Management to support Agile ways of working, please see our case study on Steering Engineering Agility Capability, Change Management towards an Agile World and Success through Focused Change Management.

Want to learn more about how we can help you?

Stefan Bertschi

Dr. Stefan Bertschi is a Senior Consultant with MI-GSO | PCUBED based out of the UK. Prior to joining MI-GSO | PCUBED he was responsible for process transformation, IT launch and business change projects at Ford Motor Company. Stefan brings experience in delivering strategy and improvements through disciplined delivery and communication across the telecoms, financial services and media sectors. He has an affinity for Agile methodologies and holds a PhD in sociology.

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