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How can your organisation implement change in an Agile environment?

Lisa Macadam

Agile and change management have emerged as important strategies for improving change outcomes. Integrating change management and Agile can improve the adoption and usage of iteratively designed solutions. (1)

The business world has witnessed more disruption in the first ten months of 2022 than in the last ten years. 

  • The combination of technological change, supply chain disruption and competitive pressures bring an urgent need for change. 
  • In addition, the pandemic, impacting employee expectations on how they want to work and prompting the onset of hybrid working, producing the 'perfect storm.'

Take large work automation projects, for example. Pre-pandemic, organisations embarked on large initiatives – to reduce costs and improve customer services.

However, during the pandemic, the number of automation projects was reduced.

  • Sales of job automation software fell. 
  • It was challenging to coordinate projects – with home working and travel bans part of daily life. (2)

Now things have changed – economies have opened and returned to pre-pandemic activity levels.

  • Research by McKinsey finds that organisations have a renewed desire to automate their processes and customer interactions. (3)
  • The Harvard Business Review reports that the amount spent on automating logistics functions, for example, will double by 2026. (4)

Add to the disruption already seen, the prospect of an economic recession and the required levels of organisational change are not 'fine-tuning' — but existential.

  • Initiatives are being launched by the dozen, adoption can't happen fast enough, and the stakes are higher than ever. (5)

In the wake of Covid-19, organisations are fundamentally rethinking their product and service portfolios, reinventing their supply chains, pursuing large-scale organisational restructuring and digital transformation. Traditional change management process won't cut it. (6)

In this environment, organisations are increasingly looking at ways to speed up their transformation efforts – and many are turning to the 'Agile playbook' – taking the practices derived from software development to make quick progress on a series of short-term change projects as part of their greater transformation efforts.

  • Traditional change management methodologies – with their reliance on defined processes are being questioned – as organisations realise that their approach to change management needs to be quick, agile and (often) virtual.
  • Organisations mastering Agile methods are looking to scale them across the enterprise, accelerating innovation to remain market-relevant and financially sound. 

Agile has emerged as a substantial global movement extending beyond software - driven by the discovery that the only way for organisations to stay competitive is to change at pace. The hope is that Agile will enable organisations to master continuous change – the catalyst that allows them to flourish in an increasingly volatile, complex, and ambiguous world.

As a result, something that started 20 years ago as a tool for software development has become a leading management method for transforming business models to fit changing requirements. 

  • An Agile approach to change management means switching from tools and templates to a quicker and more responsive attitude. This doesn't mean change practitioners have to leave their change management tools; they must adapt them to an ever-changing and iterative context.

But as organisations manage their Agile transformations, pitfalls abound. 

  • Often, organisations spend so much time and energy setting up Agile transformation programmes that they lose sight of cultural challenges - such as breaking down silos between the business and IT functions.
  • By the time they reach the execution stage, it can be too late—as this is where the cultural problems emerge. 

Discussion on how to integrate change management with Agile methods is hard to come by.

 However, in 2017, Prosci conducted research involving change practitioners who had deployed their change management practices using Agile techniques. Their four main findings were: (7) 

Change management became iterative - change management activities started evolving continuously to match the iterative nature of Agile as the projects progressed.

Plans became adaptive and living documents - the nature of Agile prompted change practitioners to adopt a 'just-in-time' mentality. As a result, plans were constantly adjusted to serve the Agile project and were not focused on perfection.

Change management required more upfront work – change participants spent more time preparing to ensure a quicker response. They extended their usual preliminary activities, as Agile efforts required more upfront communication, stakeholder engagement and information distribution.

Change in less time, at a faster pace - Agile projects left less time to plan, analyses and complete all the change management activities - to keep pace with the sprint development process.

Despite the wide adoption of the Agile method across industries and functions, most organisations barely scratch the surface of its potential. 

From Sysdoc's experience and recently published literature, business leaders can increase their chances of success by paying attention to crucial aspects of the Agile approach when embarking on change projects. Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Agile, having a starting point informed by the success factors of many who have been there before can give a decisive edge. (8)

Define and communicate the change vision and desired end state – a critical part of the Agile approach is engaging cross-functional teams empowered to produce their deliverables in compressed timescales. However, a common issue is that, although daily stand-up meetings are held and sprints completed, questions remain unanswered on how the team's work impacts the overall change programme. 

Encourage the formation of self-managing teams to drive progress. When time is of the essence, self-managing teams, consisting of people who 'do the work,' can tackle challenges and spot opportunities that are often out of sight from leadership or project team members. For example, in a change project in the banking industry, finance staff quickly identified a problem in the Purchasing department that led to difficulties with reconciliations. Working alongside a team from IT, a systems change was made soon to eliminate issues.

Embed a 'test and learn approach – to increase the chances of success, organisations using an Agile approach to change management ensure they keep close to issues that may impact projects and lead to changes in user requirements or stakeholder sentiment. This is where daily 'stand-ups' become valuable – enabling continuous evaluation of new information as it becomes available.

A shift from long-term to short-term accountability – more frequent feedback and coaching for team members focuses on the behaviours and actions needed to make the project successful. Managers need to focus on factors which drive the Agile culture and support the change effort – such as performance as part of a team.

Promote the importance of the Agile transformation office – setting up an Agile transformation office (ATO) sends a message to the rest of the organisation. The objectives of the ATO can include the following:

  • Providing day-to-day support and coaching on the Agile approach.
  • Developing training.
  • Facilitating smooth working relations between the cross-functional teams involved in projects.

Design measures that show the impact of projects on business outcomes – it is essential that staff see the progress that the Agile transformation is making. In the early stages of projects, this may be difficult – and measures may be limited to 'internal' factors such as the 'number of staff who have received training.' However, as projects progress, communicating impacts on business metrics becomes essential in keeping teams motivated.

The effort required to move to a change management approach to fit an Agile environment should not be underestimated. However, in the current business world and with the pace of change that is clearly required, it could be the best investment an organisation can make for their long-term success.

  1. Integrating Agile and Change Management, www.prosci.com
  2. Robots threaten jobs less than fearmongers claim, The Economist, 10 April 202
  3. See, for example, the automation imperative, McKinsey, 7 September 2021
  4. How do warehouse workers feel about automation? Harvard Business Review, 11 February 2022
  5. An Agile Approach to Change Management, Harvard Business Review, 11 January 2021
  6. An Agile Approach to Change Management, Harvard Business Review, 11 January 2021
  7. Adapting and Adjusting Change Management in a Change Project, www.prosci.com
  8. See, for example, An Agile Approach to Change Management, Harvard Business Review, 11 January 2021 and Closing the Agile Achievement Gap, Strategy and Business Magazine, 6 January 2022

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