Applying change management in an agile environment


A testament to the power of ‘we’ in life sciences


In many ways, the agile approach to project management embodies change. Originally created for software development but now adopted throughout business, the popular approach focuses on smaller, time-bound sprints performed by cross-functional teams. A lot happens, very quickly.

Change management shares agile’s assumption of continuous evolution. A definition offered by Grant Thornton Director of Business Change Enablement Lisa Cooney is this: “Strategy and tactics that help to prepare people for change, which could be technology-related, process-related, organizational or behavioral.” When done well, change management protects a company’s investment in the change. It can also help companies realize benefits more fully and faster if stakeholders are buying into it.

Change management can help teams realize the full benefit of agile. But, in doing so, it faces unique challenges.





The distinctive nature of agile


Agile’s cross-functional character poses both opportunities and challenges. Amy Anderson, Bristol Myers Squibb’s senior director of Organizational Effectiveness, emphasized this point: “Change management is a team sport and that becomes even more important in an agile environment.” Coordination is crucial — as is understanding what’s important to each participant, what their capabilities are, how those capabilities can be developed, and how each participant is impacted by the change.

The short duration of agile sprints creates a unique environment. To accommodate sprints measured in weeks, change managers need to run both strategic and tactical efforts in parallel. They focus on rationale, group dynamics and stakeholder buy-in on a strategic, program level; and training and impact assessment on a sprint level.

And because agile not only accepts but also values failure, participants who have spent their careers avoiding failure — not unreasonably — need to have their fears assuaged. The associated possibilities for innovation must be highlighted.




Strategies with special application to agile


While knowing your audience is always a good idea, Cooney emphasized its particular importance in agile: “It’s impossible to do change management if you don’t get out there and talk to the people who will try to adopt this change into their own lives. This is especially true in an agile environment, where the stakeholders impacted may change from one sprint to the next.”

As change leaders get to know individual team members, they should also take the time to understand the culture the team shares. Leaders should phrase what they want to accomplish in terms the culture understands, styles the culture accepts and values the culture respects. For many project participants, the agile approach is still new. It’s easy to get distracted by agile terminology like “sprint” and “scrum.” Change leaders should stay focused on the change itself and communicate it in terms that will resonate within the culture, regardless of the methodology that was used to implement it.

To build trust, leaders should integrate themselves into the core team, changing “you should” into “we should.” Anderson explained: “I see people pull in change management later on, and they’re not really part of the core team. They haven’t been in the early discussions. That is really, really tough to overcome in an agile environment where change is happening in each sprint.”

Because agile can move so fast, it’s important to communicate key strategies and principles up front and reinforce them at the end of sprints. Novartis, Cell & Gene Morris Plains, Head of Strategy and Operations Lisa McKenzie elaborated: “Be very clear in the beginning why this change is needed and how it impacts the individual. Then reinforce the why throughout the process.” In the case of agile, the user stories the team creates to guide their work can double as change management aids, personalizing the desired change.

Merck Global IT and Manufacturing Operations Executive Brian Lange suggested gaining the team’s buy-in, transforming the goal into a “pull” that motivates the team to collaborate, rather than a “push” that is a mandate. Visualizing where the team is going is more motivational than simply making them uncomfortable with the present. In an agile environment, people see elements of the project developing in an iterative way. This makes it easier to create the “pull.”

Finally, change management leads should cultivate sponsors. While executives will be assigned to the team, it can’t be assumed that they have bought in. Win them over. Address their objections, answer their questions and transform them into champions. In turn, they can help the change lead understand why this group may resist change, prepare their teams to see the value of failures, and identify what their team needs in order to do the work. Because different parts of the business may be impacted from one sprint to the next, you need to cultivate a variety of sponsors who can step forward in sprints where their team is particularly engaged.

These professionals agreed that even the most change-resistant stakeholders, when approached properly, can be convinced. McKenzie reported: “You hear people say, ‘Oh, we’ve always done it this way.’ But if you start to ask the right questions and explain that ‘here’ is where we need to be, you might be surprised that the same folks have ideas about what they would do differently.” Agile can help to reduce resistance by making changes incrementally, instead of making one big change at the end of the project.




Adapting the change management approach


The iterative nature of intense sprints — each with a short burst of activity — provides opportunities to assess and adapt the change management approach throughout the project. The ability to see results and change course quickly is perhaps its greatest selling point. Cooney observed that agile helps overcome the inertia that can plague larger corporate projects that take years to yield results.




1. Value and leverage quick wins.


One of the great strengths of agile is its ability to quickly produce victories. These can be leveraged within the team and the organization to build positive momentum. Lange had this encouragement for change leads: “Leverage the quick wins that happen at the small scale and then, as they pile up, make your adjustments for future sprints.”

Those small wins can become bigger wins. Anderson added to Lange’s advice: “When you have the right people in the room, when they’re doing amazing things, leverage that like a flywheel. People see that, and they start to understand the behaviors and see the stories and successes. That’s when the light bulb starts to go off. It’s coming from the bottom up instead of the top down.”




2. Value and leverage quick losses.


In this process, where failure is embraced, leverage the insights that failure generates. Because they highlight what not to do, failures may have more strategic value than do wins. Lange pointed out: “It makes the fear of failure less prominent and advances you faster, too.”

As the process moves along, you will want to right-size your change management tools, especially the measured impacts. Based on experience, Anderson suggested: “Hone in on the metrics that matter. What’s the behavior change? What’s the system change? What’s the process change? What training do they need? What are the messages? And keep it simple.“




The surprising opportunities of agile


In addition to its more predictable opportunities, agile benefits teams in ways you might not expect. There’s the joy of seeing teams of mixed generations and working styles thrive, undoing expectations of who might resist change.

The distinctive work environment shaped by agile can produce amazing results. When people committed to solving a problem do so through a process of quick wins and fresh insights, you may have created a process that is not only successful, but also contagious.






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