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Why change management is critical to Agile success

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Why change management is critical to Agile success
Stephen de Villiers Graaff
Agile Coach and Consultant, DVT

Why change management is critical to Agile success

 Stephen de Villiers Graaff


Switching to an Agile way of thinking involves change, and often lots of it.


Inertia. A condition we’re all familiar with. The more we get comfortable in a certain state, the less we’re willing to entertain the idea of changing what we’re doing, or how we’re doing it.


From a place of rest, moving means firing up muscles that haven’t been used in a while. It could even get painful. We don’t like it, so we resist.


Even if we believe ourselves to be on a path of activity and motion, it requires an act of will to change the direction we’re moving in.


Interestingly, inertia applies to organisations as much as it does to humans. How many times have you heard the phrase ‘this is the way we’ve always done things’ spoken in management meetings, around water coolers or at impromptu cafeteria lunches?


The bad news is that switching to an Agile way of thinking involves change, and often lots of it. It’s going to hurt, especially if your business has been doing things ‘the same way’ for a very long time.


The good news is that the pain of changing to Agile is far less than the pain of not doing so, or, put another way, the rewards far outweigh the risks.


That’s why change management – the process of helping organisations better understand the pain of change and focus them on the rewards – is critical to a successful shift to Agile. And to understand why, we first need to explore the reasons why we don’t change in the first place, and why we ultimately must change if we expect to compete, succeed and grow.


Exaptation. Unlike inertia, many of us wouldn’t have the faintest idea what it means. Wikipedia defines it as “a trait [that] can evolve because it served one particular function, but subsequently it may come to serve another.”


I liken it to feathers on a dinosaur. A very long time ago, dinosaurs evolved feathers on their bodies, but interestingly not for the purpose that modern-day dinosaur descendants (i.e. birds) use them. Dinosaurs used feathers to keep warm, and in some cases, as advertising to potential mates. They had no clue that, if push came to shove, those fuzzy, colourful new growths could be used to achieve the miracle of flight.


Using feathers to fly was an evolutionary leap that meant some species (the ones that figured it out) survived, while others perished.


As organisations, we have all the tools we need to succeed at our disposal. We have feathers. We have Agile. But unless we learn to make the evolutionary leap, we’re likely to end up like the dinosaurs. We don’t change not because we can’t, but because we don’t see the next step. The risk is that some of our competitors will see the next step, and will take the leap, leaving us to play catch-up.


And so we must change. As a consultant I often use the example of a man climbing a ladder and, on reaching the top, realising that the next ladder up is too far away to make a safe jump. Most companies in that position set about building a platform to the next ladder, which invariably gets them to the start of the next climb safely, but takes time, effort and money.


Jumping to the next ladder is risky, and chances are you’ll miss it a few times before you reach it, with painful consequences as a result. But the risk of not jumping is watching one of your competitors make the jump and start the climb ahead of you. So, while you’re building your safe and predictable platform, your competitor forges ahead, and the time, effort and money it will cost you to compete again far exceeds the pain of a few failed jumps.


That’s why we must change. It’s why we must switch our thinking from the traditional to Agile. Why teamwork and collective responsibility makes more sense than individual accountability and fat layer of management bloat. In today’s fast-paced digital global economy, the risk of not doing so is far greater than doing things the same way, for whatever reason you choose to justify it.


Change management, for all its scary connotations, is really just the process of teaching individuals, groups and leaders in an organisation how to see, touch and feel the risks, and to understand why it’s so important to take them. It doesn’t remove the risks, nor lessen them, but better prepares us to deal with them, and motivates us to continue if and when we don’t quite reach the ladder.


Without it, we run the risk of throwing our hands up at failure on the first attempt, falling back into the false sense of progress we’ve evolved through inertia.


Stephen de Villiers Graaff is a Principal Agile Consultant at software and services specialist DVT. Based in Cape Town, de Villiers Graaff was responsible for a number of high-profile Agile implementations over the past five years, including major projects at First Contact, StatPro and McGregorBFA. He also worked on the Agile transformation at one of South Africa’s leading retail chains before his DVT recruitment.