The Four Charactaristics of a Successful Agile Change Management Team

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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.  A company decides it wants to transform and become more Agile.  They hire an experienced Scrum Master consultant to help lead the change.  They send 20 people off to Agile training.  2 years later, they are bumbling along with a few Agile teams but by no means have they experienced the large scale transformation they wanted.  What happened?  Well, one individual cannot transform an organization, you have to build a team.  Not just any time, the right team made up of the right people.

Here are the four characteristics of a successful agile change management team

Position Power

There are powerful people in your organization you absolutely must get on board with your change effort.  You will need their “juice”, and you will need to keep them from blocking your efforts.

Getting buy-in from senior line-level managers will make it easier for you to influence their direct reports, and therefore the organization as a whole.  This is a technique I call “co-opting the juice.”  As a consultant, I have very little juice, but when I can align myself with those who have juice in the organization, and get them to stand behind my efforts, voila, instant juice!

Another reason to get buy in from the powerful people in your organization is to prevent them from blocking your efforts.  Sometimes change agents feel its enough to “keep certain people out of the way.”  However, the moment they hear of an idea they don’t like or an initiative that could destabilize their organization, they will come in and block it.  You don’t want this to happen.  You want their input and opinion on items that may affect the performance of their group, so you want to get buy in from them and get them on the “change team”, even if its in an advisory role.




You need people who have seen the movie before and help the change team avoid common mistakes.  Usually consultants are brought in to play the role of the expert.  This is fine, but you need different kinds of expertise, and you need to recruit internal experts to help everyone understand the industry, the disciplines being affected, and the macro trends inside and outside the organization.  On the change team you need deep Agile expertise, deep industry expertise, and deep organizational expertise.  That executive assistant that has been around for 20 years through 7 CEOs may be your secret weapon!



No matter what the level of expertise of the members of the team, if they don’t have credibility inside the organization, the efforts will be doomed.  I have seen many organizations take the lower performing members inside various organizations and put them on the change team.  You can imagine how little the team was able to accomplish, because these were people who were mostly ignored inside their departments.  It may seem counter intuitive, but you want to take your BEST managers and leaders and put them on the change team.  By best I mean, “The people who incite the kind of fearless devotion from their direct reports that make them happily swim shark infested waters in service to doing the best they can for this manager.”  Those are the people for whom the organization will be willing to make tough changes.



You will need enough proven leaders on the team to be able to drive the change process.  This is one of the major risks of having a change team consisting of all outside consultants.  They may have proven leadership abilities outside the client organization, but they need to be bolstered by internal change agents with a strong vision and a history of making things happen.  This may be an opportunity to enlist someone with major leadership potential into a new role that will allow them to rise to the occasion.

Until Next Time,

Stay Agile My Friends

PS, Download my one page guide to Building A Coalition That Can Make Change Happen


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Why Agile Principles Matter

Why the Principles Matter:  None of this Agile Stuff Works Without it Anyway

So many times, when we come upon a potential solution to a problem, such as software development challenges, we get so enthusiastic about learning the rule sets of that solution that we overlook the foundation.  This is the same for Scrum, or any Agile framework for that matter.  From my perspective, this is the cause of a lot of the friction with the “Agile Aristocracy”, and part of the root of the complaint that “When I bring up a problem, they say you’re doing it wrong”  Principles outlast dogma every time.

The reason Scrum is a lightweight framework is to make it flexible depending on the situation, however, a lot of people end up turning it into a “Prescriptive Methodology”, when that’s not the point.  The point is to give you a framework for thinking about things in a value-centric manner, and a number of tools to make it difficult to slide into old habits.  Underpinning all this are a value system that is an absolute prerequisite.

The Scrum Values are:  Focus, Courage, Openness, Commitment, and Respect

Nearly every time I hear about a “failed agile transition”, it is because these values were not present and did not act as a foundation for the uncharted territory the company was moving into.

Focus is at the core of being able to deliver value to customers.

This means you allow people the mental bandwidth to do a good job.  This means that people are not peanut-buttered across multiple projects paying a context switch tax for every thing they do.  This means that fewer things are started and more things are finished.  This is what projects look like when people are multitasking.  The projects get completed all around the same time, which means that all of the projects have to wait 20 weeks to get any ROI


This is what projects look like when people are focused.  You get a quicker time to market, this a faster ROI.  However, a culture of focus has to be cultivated in order to make this a reality.

Once we remove the switching costs, and get a very modest 10% improvement, this is what the project looks like.  Even more ROI faster.


With any change, there will be friction, and there will be personality traits of the organization that make it very easy to slide back into old habits.  There will be situations where old ways of thinking will need to be confronted and complacency broken.  It takes courage to do so, and it takes courage to hold yourself, your peers, and your superiors accountable to those lapses.


Since Scrum is an empirical process that relies on data to make decisions in a perpetual “inspect and adapt” cycle, and the typical management style is to rely on intuition, it is necessary that people are open to making data-driven decisions.  People also will need to be open to other observations from “inspect and adapt” that may run counter to their intuition.


Companies are looking for a new way of doing things often find themselves looking at Agile methods like Scrum, but any transition requires commitment to introspection and change.  Without commitment, as soon as there is a challenge to be faced, the company will abandon the effort.


This should go without saying, but I have to say it anyway, you have to respect your people.  If you think of your teams as sniveling mouth breathers who will take the first chance they get to slack off, your adoption will not be successful.  If you think your team needs to be micromanaged down to the minute level, you will not be successful.  If your organization is top down in nature and tightly controlled from a process perspective, your adoption will not be successful.

Trust and Honesty are principles that are implied in the other principles, and without them, none of this agile stuff will work anyway!

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Are you Optimizing for Cost or Optimizing for Value?

Its a case of playing not to lose vs playing to win.  Often we see this behavior because people in management have been well-rewarded for playing it safe for 20-30 years.  Thus, all of their decisions are optimized for risk reduction.


As we all know, you have to take risk in order to reap the rewards

When it comes to Agile adoptions, the organization has taken the first step toward reaping the rewards, but often haven’t done the groundwork to ensure that middle management understands the direction, the vision, and the strategy.

This risk-averse mindset manifests itself in a few key ways

Such as outsourced development, refusal to bring in consultants/experts to help in transition (because of cost), overworked teams producing low quality products.  The low quality products mean less revenue, and less revenue means more cost cutting measures, more risk aversion, less customer satisfaction, and less ability to compete in the market.

Scrum focuses on value delivery

One of the things that demands a culture change from Scrum is the fact that in Scrum, and Agile in general, we are optimizing for value delivery rather than cost reduction.   So for companies who have a deep “cut costs” mentality this can be very frustrating.  Not only is the investment looked at with a suspicious glance,  but also results are expected NOW (You said it would make us faster!).

When all of your brainpower is focused on reducing cost and risk, you will stifle innovation, creativity, and your ability to create long term value.  Ask yourself, Are you optimizing for cost or value?

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Agile Organizational Change: Three Levels of Resistance: The Group

When we as coaches come into an organization to try to transform it, we are often met with resistance. For us, it is a matter of “take the lumps because its good for you”, Do you wonder why sometimes, even in the face of a changing environment, or an existential threat, companies still don’t change? Even when they say they want to, they still do not. We can look at companies like Nokia or Blackberry to see examples of companies that resisted change, and when change did come it was too slow and too late. So where does this resistance come from?

This is a part 2 of a 3 part series on Agile Organizational Change and the Levels of Resistance (The Organization, The Group, The Individual).

Group Level Resistance to Change

Group Norms. Groups develop strong informal norms that specify behavior and govern interactions between group members. We like to call these “the unwritten rules.” These are especially damaging because you can break one and be punished, but not understand why. One of the reasons Scrum works well, but is disruptive, is because it makes the rules, the values, and the principles well known and understood. These changes disrupt group norms and may increase resistance, especially for those groups that have optimized themselves toward the hidden ruleset.

Group Cohesiveness. Some level of cohesiveness promotes group performance, too much reduces performance if it makes a group slow to recognize opportunities and adapt. A highly cohesive group resists changes to what it does or even to who its members are, and group members may unite to protect their interests. Have you ever had a team you were coaching and just couldn’t get any breakthroughs with them? Standoffish till the end? Group cohesiveness at work!

Group-think and Escalation of Commitment. Group-think is a pattern of faulty decision making that happens in groups when members ignore negative information to make it easier to conform to each others views. Escalation of commitment makes it worse because group members can recognize their course of action is wrong but continue to pursue it, regardless of the

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consequences. This can make adoption impossible.

An extreme example of escalation of commitment would be the Scrum team refusing to write one line of code until all the requirements are written down and signed off on, thus delaying the project.

Counteracting Group Level Resistance to Change. One of the most effective ways to counteract group level resistance to change is to break up or reconfigure the group. If a company is organized functionally and you create cross-functional teams, there is a certain amount of this that will happen naturally. Another way to counteract group level resistance is to enforce a new set of “norms” in the way of Agile values, principles, and practices. Lastly, the organizational leadership should be continually beating the drum and evangelizing the future vision as a way to provide you “air cover” for your change efforts.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Agile Organizational Change Management. If you are interested in getting free chapters, sneak peeks, and the ability to give us feedback as we write the book, Check it out: Agile Organizational Change Management, Facilitating Large Scale Organizational Change with Agile Transformations.

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What is Organizational Change Management?


Organizational Change Management Definition

Wikipedia defines Organizational Change Management as follows:  “Organizational Change Management aligns groups’ expectations, communicates, integrates teams and manages people training. It makes use of metrics, such as leader’s commitment, communication effectiveness, and the perceived need for change to design accurate strategies, in order to avoid change failures or solve troubled change projects.”

This is important for Agile Project Management because when we look at large enterprise projects this is most often the cause of failure.  We have a stellar project manager, we have a superstar team of developers, a highly astute group of business analysts, and a core team of wizard architects, yet the project was still seen as a failure.  Why?

Why Organizational Change Management is Important

Because the most talented project delivery team and the most sophisticated whizz bang technology doesn’t change the basics of human nature, and one of the basics of human nature is that people are resistant to change.  OCM is a discipline that studies change in an organization (easy, right.)

Let me state it again:  People hate change. When an engineer in 2010 looks at the DOS program that Mary has been using for the last 15 years to enter orders, then sees her print out the manifest, take it to Bob, who pulls the order from the shelf, writes the date, time and release on a piece of paper, then takes it over to Ned who gets it ready for shipping, he sees a Rube Goldberg machine that if properly digitized, optimized, and streamlined could unlock all kinds of value for an organization!  Excelsior!

Not so fast Sparky

Mary knows how to do her job.  Bob knows how to do his job, and Ned knows how to do his job.  They have ingrained patterns of behavior that give them a certain level of comfort with the current system, warts and all.  If you come in with a customized automatic digital sign-off and order routing system, the whole order to cash ecosystem could very well come to a screeching halt.

As Agile project managers and technologists, we cannot continue to look at software development and packaged software implementations in a bubble.  We need to recognize that the cause of ‘perceived’ failure for many a project is the lack of understanding and respect for how and why people are prompted to change.

Where I have seen people fail

I have looked at many technology project plans and have seen no provisions for guiding the organization through the change curve.  Zero understanding or respect paid to training the users (what do you mean, I’m a UI GURU…. IT’S INTUITIVE!!!).  Try telling that to Mary when she says, “It just doesn’t work!”  What she really means is “It just doesn’t work FOR ME.  I didn’t buy into the idea,  I wasn’t prepared, I wasn’t trained and dammit I don’t like it!”

How to approach organizational change management

The next time you are envisioning a project, don’t just think about the developers, dbas, architects, testers, and business analysts.  Think about a communication plan (early and often).  Think about how you can get executive leadership to take a visible role in enabling change in the organization.  Think about how you can expose the organization to the project progress, goals, and value.  In short, think about your customer.

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