Agile change and change management - Short article by Jane Judd

A question that is popping up more frequently across our network is what is the difference between Agile change and change management?  As those moving into the change profession or supporting change in their workplace are looking to navigate their careers and seek support with new roles, it is a natural question to ask.

The answer to this question is simple – Agile change is a method for applying change management disciplines in an Agile development environment.  Change management is both a field of work and a process or method for engaging people to design and make change happen in the workplace.  Agile reflects the business context in which this may be required and influences the change methods and techniques that might best apply, sometimes referred to as Agile change.

In the early 2000s, Agile development methodology gained momentum and provided a more human centred and flexible approach to developing technology solutions.  In 2001 the Agile Manifesto was released clearly indicating four values:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

For many change practitioners with organisational development backgrounds, this struck a chord as it aligned with much of the leadership, engagement and learning organisation theories they too were promoting.  The basis for design of the change approach was often Knowles Adult Learning Principles which look something like this:

  • Recognising adults are self-directed, empowering them to have a say in the content and process of their learning
  • As adults have experience to draw from, their learning should focus on adding to what they have already learned
  • Adults are looking for practical learning, content should therefore focus on issues relevant to their work or personal life
  • Learning should be centred on solving problems over memorizing content.

There was and is a strong correlation between the Agile Manifesto and the change management profession.  From a professional change perspective, we actively promote “agile organisations” where leaders and teams are more adaptive to change and have set about creating enterprise-wide capability to enable this.  In fact, the Change Management Institute Conference in 2013 was focused on change agility.

In some organisations, Agile methods have not been fully adopted in their purest form, but integrated into other ways of working, just like project management and change management.  Although this may cause confusion initially, there is now much more widespread understanding of the tools and techniques associated with supporting Agile teams, and the positive consequences of the engagement this promotes is clearly evident.

So, what does all of this mean from a change practitioner perspective?

It means that if you are seeking recognition as a change professional it is essential to understand the underlying principles of why and how people change.  It is then that you can add to your skills with a range of tools and techniques that will help you apply this understanding to different situations.  If you are working in an Agile environment you need to adapt your practice to the align to the values of the Agile manifesto, but not lose sight of the underlying principles of how adults learn and change.

When beginning a change assignment, the first step is to understand the organisational context and adapt your approach to meet this.  Is the business using Agile?  Lean? Human Centred Design? Other project management or strategy methods?  Over time you can grow your skills to be able to work across a range of these change situations, however the basis for change in all of these is not in the techniques you use but in how you design the approach that is fit for purpose in engaging people for change. 

Change is all about people.  A sound understanding of how adults learn, the psychology of change and how our brains are wired to respond to change, all help inform the best change methods and tools to select in any given context.

Written by Jane Judd
President, Change Management Institute, Accredited Change Manager Master and Strategic Change Advisor.