Overcoming Resistance to Change in Agile Transformations: A Guide for Agile Coaches and Leaders

Jan 25, 2024 | Uncategorized

The Agile Compass

by Matthias Orgler

Hello Reader,

last week we talked about how to achieve psychological safety and why it’s important for agility. This week I wanna tackle an issue most agile practitioners grapple with: Resistance to change.

If you’d like to read about a specific topic or have a current issue in your organization, let me know! Just reply to this email – I read all replies.

And now let’s talk about resistance to change, why it happens and what you can do about it.

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Overcoming Resistance to Change in Agile Transformations: A Guide for Agile Coaches and Leaders

Agile transformations often encounter resistance, a natural response to change, particularly in the context of organizations. Agile coaches and leaders play a crucial role in navigating this resistance. This article explores key reasons behind such resistance and offers strategies for agile coaches to address them effectively, backed by change management theories and real-world examples.

1. Past Negative Experiences with “Agile”

Many individuals have experienced flawed implementations of “agile” methodologies, which often lack true agility.

These experiences can taint their perception of agile practices. With agility becoming mainstream, many started to jump the bandwagon with a flawed or superficial understanding of it. Consequently agile coaches have to deal with people who think they‘ve experienced “agile“, but have actually only seen a traditional system with a few processes and roles changed.

Strategy: Empathetic Listening and Re-education

You should actively listen to these past experiences. It’s vital to acknowledge these misimplementations and distinguish them from genuine agile principles. You can whole-heartedly agree with them that the “agile“ they experienced was indeed not beneficial. You should educate teams on true agile values, emphasizing its core principles rather than just processes. This approach aligns with Kotter’s Change Management Theory¹, which emphasizes the importance of communicating a clear vision for change.

Example: A team previously worked under a system labeled ‘agile’, which merely emphasized rapid delivery without fostering collaboration or flexibility. An agile coach can show how genuine agile thinking enhances team dynamics and leads to sustainable efficiency.

2. Success with Non-Agile Approaches

Teams and managers who have found success with traditional methodologies may view agile transformations as a negation of their past achievements.

If you‘ve worked in your job for decades, it‘s very likely that not all was bad. You don‘t want to negate all your learnings and past successes. Agile coaches have to clarify that an agile transformation does not mean to throw everything out the window.

Strategy: Inclusive Transition

We should recognize and value these past successes. They should present agile as an enhancement, not a replacement, of their current skills. It also helps to oppose the simplistic change management model of Lewin², which suggests a change is a one-time transition that leads to a new “frozen“ state. But an agile organization will enter a time of constant adaptation and change – so people‘s past skills merely form the starting point for building and improving on them.

Empathetically acknowledge their successes and broad experience. Work out how these skills are still applicable (and might even have more impact) in an agile context. Also point out the approaches that might have failed more and more recently due to the increasing pace of change in markets and technologies. Agility now offers a different approach to meet these new challenges.

Example: A manager who successfully led projects with a waterfall approach can be shown how agile methodologies can complement their existing project management skills, adding flexibility and responsiveness to their toolkit. Project management doesn‘t vanish in an agile context, it‘s just approached differently and maybe distributed across multiple roles.

3. Previously Rejected Ideas Now Being Accepted

Individuals may resist agile transformations if they perceive their past ideas, similar to agile principles, were ignored but are now being accepted from external sources.

Strategy: Recognition and Appreciation

Agile coaches must approach such situations with sensitivity. Acknowledging the individual’s past ideas and integrating them into the new agile framework can reduce resistance. This approach is consistent with Appreciative Inquiry (AI)³, which focuses on valuing and building upon the best aspects of ‘what is’.

Example: An employee who previously suggested automated testing and iterative development, but was turned down, should be credited when this approach is adopted in the agile transformation.

I actually experienced this with a client. For weeks we couldn‘t figure out why one senior middle manager was so violently attacking every part of the agile transformation. Once we dug deeper, we finally discovered, he had actually proposed investing in automated testing about 6 months before we external coaches arrived on the scene. He had everything planned and would‘ve helped them come to a wonderful test infrastructure that could‘ve enabled them to be much more agile. But his idea was turned down. And now we agile coaches basically demanded that automated test infrastructure – and management now loved our idea. Once we knew the history, we could give that middle manager due credit and include him in our efforts.

4. Experience with Superficial Changes

Many view agile as yet another fleeting trend, based on their experience with past changes that had little lasting impact.

How many times have I heard the words “oh, this trend will pass just like so many others – we just have to wait it out“. Sadly, this is sometimes how management actually approaches an agile transformation.

Of course this fails to acknowledge the different nature of agile transformations. An agile transformation runs deeper than mere processes or roles. Changing value and principles is a totally different game than introducing mere processes. This cultural shift, that goes along with a different focus on people instead of processes, can change an organization significantly and sustainably.

Strategy: Demonstrating Depth and Sustainability

We need to differentiate agile transformation from superficial process changes. They should emphasize the deep-seated shift in values and principles that agile brings, much beyond mere process adjustments. This aligns with the ADKAR⁴ model, which stresses the importance of creating awareness and desire for change.

Once people understand the benefits and true approach of agility, they are more likely to embrace and even demand the change.

Example: If your client organization has a workers council, it’s paramount to include them early in the transformation. Show them that agility is not about squeezing even more productivity out of workers and monitoring performance in more detail. Once they understand the values and view of the human being behind agility, they will embrace it and be a great partner in transforming an organization into an agile one.

Conclusion

Agile coaches and leaders must recognize and empathetically address the various forms of resistance encountered in agile transformations. By understanding the underlying reasons for resistance and employing appropriate strategies, they can guide teams towards embracing agile principles effectively, leading to meaningful and lasting organizational change.

References

  • ¹ Kotter, J.P. (1996). Leading Change.
  • ² Lewin, K. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics.
  • ³ Cooperrider, D. L., & Srivastva, S. (1987). Appreciative Inquiry.
  • ⁴ Hiatt, J. (2006). ADKAR: a model for change in business, government and our community.

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