Why change programs need an agile mindset

Ideas for fast-tracking the process while retaining quality

What is the most challenging phase for any organization? Enduring and managing change. Traditional change programs, run sequentially from one stage to the next and can take several months, up to a year or even more to complete. This exacting and laborious process may not sit well in today’s fast-paced business environment, where disruption is always round the corner.

So, how can organizations fast-track the process of change while retaining focus on quality?

In the new world, it’s not the big fish that eats the small fish, it’s the fast fish which eats the slow fish.
– Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum

Is Agile the answer?

One answer is to take a peek at the technology sector, which has long embraced the need for speed. For technology companies, rapid change is the norm, and products need to be constantly refreshed and updated. At the same time, these products must meet high standards in a highly competitive market — a drop in quality will almost certainly ensure a hit on their reputation.

How are tech companies able to keep up with this relentless pace to deliver products and services on time? Part of the answer is Agile, a project management methodology aimed at increasing user focus, collaboration between teams and speed to market.

The method has proven to be one of the most effective methodologies to have emerged in recent years. According to a 2015 study by the Standish Group, Agile projects were 300% more successful than projects managed using traditional models.

In short, Agile not only resulted in rapid delivery, but it also ensured greater success than traditional models.

Agile vs. traditional

Why is Agile so much more successful? Let’s take a look at the differences between Agile and traditional models, in terms of project delivery, outcomes and risks:

What does Agile mean for change management?

When it comes to change management, we can also borrow parts of the Agile methodology to produce faster results.  Let’s consider some aspects of Agile that can benefit your change management projects:

A strong focus on the user

One of the biggest strengths of Agile is that it puts the user in the center. Every project begins by asking the most basic of questions: What does the user want?

These questions form what Agile practitioners call ‘user stories’. In essence, this is what we want out of the product. For instance, you may want to develop an app and one of the key functions in it is to be able to sign in to the product using a password and a username. How this can be done, and what it should look like is clearly spelt out at the start before the work begins. Once the pre-acceptance criteria are clearly defined, the work begins. And when it is completed, the work is judged against the criteria to assess if it has been properly completed.

In the case of change management, using Agile means the focus swings to those affected by the change and how change can benefit them. Agreeing what needs to be done in the first instance mean success can be measured in concrete terms. The main benefit of Agile on this front is that the gap between what is expected and what is delivered through the change process is minimized, i.e. user-focused tangible benefits.

One of the reasons change projects fail or lose steam is the lack of visibility.

Higher visibility, greater engagement

One of the reasons change projects fail or lose steam is the lack of visibility. Those affected by the project are often unaware of what is going on and this can make a massive difference in morale. Under the Agile methodology, the team is provided a visual reminder of activities through ‘change walls’ — whiteboards or walls with sticky notes.

This allows all involved parties to see the project’s progress, review what the team is working on, assess indicators and derive insights on impediments. If this is adapted for change management, such tools will likely increase participants’ engagement levels and boost their sense of ownership of the project. It is also likely to result in faster resolution of bottlenecks and a quicker change process.

Continuous feedback is fuel for improvement

We all know that keeping energy levels high throughout a change project is challenging. This is to be expected especially when the change team is distributed. To this end, Agile managers call for frequent meetings to keep the team in sync. These meetings are typically short, but provide instant feedback. This, in turn, improves progress towards planned outcomes.

Another mechanism used by Agile practitioners at the end of a delivery cycle is called a “retrospective” or “retrospect”. This is a meeting where the team reflects on what happened and how delivery could be improved going forward. In short, the feedback loop is likely to ensure closer alignment with expectations. This should then result in achieving the project’s goals more quickly.

Faster results, shorter deadlines

At the heart of the Agile methodology is the concept of the outcome through multiple iterations, or cycles with fixed, short deadlines. The idea behind this concept is simple — each stage provides incremental progress towards the objective.

Adapting this for a change project could mean breaking up the lengthy project into smaller phases. The goal is to complete each phase, demonstrate its success and learn from each iteration before moving onto the next phase. Tangible results also mean those affected by change see real value sooner. The process of sharing success typically acts as a catalyst for rapid adoption, fast-tracking change.

Does Agile work for all projects?

To be certain, Agile is not the only model to work with. Traditional models work well when requirements are clearly defined and significant changes are not expected during implementation.

In other cases, and especially in the current business environment, adopting Agile principles for change programs can result in implementation with faster results. Adopting Agile practices, however, means a cultural shift for senior stakeholders and managers. Agile delivery needs higher levels of commitment and engagement — faster results need higher involvement.

In any case, every project has its own set of peculiarities. Methodologies such as Agile, Inversion Thinking and Design Thinking will need to be adapted to suit the needs of a project — remaining flexible is key. In other words, the best approach is the one that gets the job done.


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