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Understanding Change Management in an Agile World

by: Shiv Sharma

Change management has captured the imagination of organizations for decades. This is evident from the multiple models it has inspired over the years. Lewin explained it in 3 steps while Kotter did it in 8. Every few years, the world changed and so did the approach of managing change itself. 

But how to approach change in a world where Agile has become mainstream? When most Agile methodologies are built around adaptability to change, do traditional change management models still hold true?  Have Agile frameworks put an end to change management as we know it?

There is a distinction between change that is inherent in Agile frameworks and structural change addressed by various models. To explore this difference, let’s first define Agile and Change Management models.

What is Agile?

Agile is the mindset of satisfying customers/stakeholders by optimizing your process for their changing requirements. It is the underlying philosophy that powers Agile models like Scrum and Kanban. 

What are the change management models?

Change management models are frameworks that attempt to introduce lasting structural changes with minimum friction in an organization.

The primary goal of Agile philosophies is to satisfy customers. The changes that they address are the variations in the customer requirements. In other words, these changes are the means to deliver solutions that delight stakeholders.

The changes discussed by change management models are ends in themselves. The goal is to focus on the change and the best way to introduce it to the team. 

Can organizations use Agile frameworks to introduce change? Can change itself become the goal of Agile methodologies? This is the scope of the Agile change management process. 

What is Agile change management?

Agile change management is the philosophy of introducing structural changes in the organization using an iterative Agile framework. Let’s use an example of a fictional organization called APEX to understand this.  

APEX has offices in three different countries, the US, Japan, and Germany. It has a divisional organizational structure. Each country’s office has its own marketing, sales, and HR units that are autonomous. APEX wants to transition from a divisional structure to a functional one, i.e. to consolidate each function such as marketing across all regions under a single leader. This is a massive change and requires a robust change management plan.

Solution 1 – Traditional Change Management Model

APEX decides to follow a traditional change management approach based on Lewin’s model (Unfreeze, Transform, Refreeze). 

  • Unfreeze – The senior leadership lays out the plan and communicates it to the rest of the company. It answers concerns, takes feedback from the team, and adapts its original plan accordingly. By the end of the Unfreeze stage, it has a comprehensive plan to introduce the change. 
  • Transform – The team hunkers down and gets to work. This is the most painful stage when people have to alter their habits and set the change in motion. 
  • Refreeze – Once the transformation is complete, the team reinforces the change. It proactively tries to avoid the tendency to fall back to the old ways. The change becomes the new status quo. 

This model can work really well if the change plan remains the same throughout the process. But imagine if during the transformation stage, the team realizes that it’s better to leave the Japan office as a silo due to cultural factors. This would have wasted several man-hours both during the unfreeze and transform stages. In such cases an Agile Change Model can be better:

Solution 2 – Agile Change Management Process

APEX decides to follow Scrum – one of the most popular Agile frameworks to restructure its organization. The process would be considerably different from above as certain principles of the Agile manifesto are at odds with traditional change management models. 

  • The management communicates its intention and vision of the change to the team. It doesn’t create a comprehensive plan to implement it yet. 
  • APEX creates a Scrum team that includes representatives from all the affected departments. This team will be responsible for both planning, executing, and reinforcing the change. 
  • The team adopts the basic structure of Scrum. It has a sprint meeting where it decides on deliverables for the first two weeks. At the end of each sprint, it has a sprint review and retrospective to analyze the work done and suggest measures to improve. It keeps the stakeholders involved in the entire process and then plans the next sprint. 
  • The team doesn’t focus solely on planning before executing any work. They focus on the top priorities for the existing sprint. For example, in the first sprint, the team needs to `consolidate all sales units under one leader. During the sprint, they focus solely on sales and keep the stakeholders informed about the potential challenges. The stakeholders can then alter the requirements based on feedback (for e.g. leaving the Japanese sales team autonomous) and the team adjusts their projects accordingly. Such real-time collaboration ensures that no time is wasted on unnecessary planning. 
  • This process continues with every sprint and at the end of the project, the results might be different from what was initially imagined. But they’ll be closer to the existing requirements of the stakeholders. 
  • The team will also be more adaptable to the change towards the end, because the management didn’t dump the entire plan on them. The team was involved in not only the execution but also the planning of the change. They had the opportunity to give feedback and get continuous assistance from the stakeholders. 

The core philosophy of Agile change management

People over processes. This is at the heart of all Agile philosophies and Agile change management. Each step of the process can change if it serves the stakeholders and the team better. Their satisfaction takes precedence over everything else. 

No Agile change management approach is set in stone. Feel free to adapt according to the unique needs and the culture of your team. 

According to a poll by Gartner, 50% of respondents regarded their organization’s change management performance as a failure and an average company had 5 big changes in the past 3 years. An Agile change management process can help improve these numbers. And it all begins by putting people above processes. 

How can technology help with Agile change management?


The emergence of cloud-based collaboration tools in the 2010s had a major impact on the widespread adoption of Agile practices. The same tools can help with Agile change management as well. If you would like to manage your next big change using an Agile methodology, sign up for free on Taskworld

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