Manage Change

In his excellent book on Kanban, David Anderson teaches that

Existing processes will be optimized through introduction of visualization and limiting work-in-progress to catalyze changes. As existing roles and responsibilities do not change, resistance from employees should be minimal [emphasis mine].

Minimal resistance perhaps – but expect it just the same. Why do people resist change, even when it’s going to improve things? There are several generic realities to consider:

Change makes me incompetent. Even if I benefit, any change means things I do on “autopilot” or “muscle memory” have to be retrained.

There are always winners and losers, and the default assumption is that I’m one of the losers (if only because of temporary incompetence). The gains and losses can be subtle or huge:

  • when electronic systems were installed in police cars to allow patrolmen to run license plates and such on their own, the dispatcher lost a lot of power.
  • when a major consulting firm created a world-wide BBS, the specialist experts became available to many more people – but that meant the experts would be called upon to do more.
  • even making things more visible, as in the Anderson quote above, means that the people performing the newly-visualized work are now subject to scrutiny – and potential criticism. Nothing destroys my typing accuracy and speed like having someone look over my shoulder!

And of course, the winners may be diffuse — they may not even be present, e.g. customers or generations yet unborn — whereas those who will have to support the change are far more likely to perceive a threat and resist. An extreme example is pollution controls: everybody wins a little bit, but existing polluters get the costs.

The benefits may not be apparent, even to the “winners.”


So what do you do? At a minimum, do a thorough stakeholder analysis: create a balance sheet, tabulate the pluses and minuses for each constituency in open dialog with that constituency, and get buy-in from those whose burdens will increase. Perhaps you’ll need to compensate them in some fashion. Keeping the discussion open removes that vague notion that I’m probably worse off; as usual, good communication drives out bad assumptions, and the assumptions are generally worse than the reality.

Better, take a page from kaizen: empower people to address issues and identify improvements, then support their implementation, including the stakeholder analysis for anyone not actually part of the kaizen team. Contrary to everything I’ve said to this point, people actually like to make changes; they just don’t like being changed.

Or more glibly, it’s more fun to be the hammer than the nail, so encourage people to be hammers!

Change management will transform as you empower and drive out fear, as you make issues more visible, and as the organizational culture shifts toward optimizing the whole.

The Abstract Virtues

It’s real easy to summarize Agile / Lean: Just do the right thing for the circumstances. That’s a little bit like a winning formula for tennis: just hit the ball in-bounds. Easy to say but not very helpful.

That said, let me set out a couple of grounding assumptions.

First, I take it as self-evident that people would rather have their work be meaningful, of high quality, and make a positive difference in the world. I’m sure there are exceptions — people who have lost the joy and passion in their work, or are only in it for the money, or are “workin’ for the weekend,” or are just trying to hang on until retirement.  But even those people, given the chance to choose, would choose to make a positive difference as long as they have to hang around 40 hours a week anyway. When managers ask what role is left for them in agile development teams, I would point to any difference between how people would choose to contribute versus what they do contribute as the place to focus.

Second, I’m assuming that you are engaged in an activity like software development, where discovery and driving out risk are essential parts of the process. Consider the difference between baking a cake you’ve made before, and driving to the supermarket to get the ingredients. The first process can be precisely planned with little variation; the latter requires that you keep your eyes on the road and make large and small adjustments, even if you’ve made that trip hundreds of times.

Third, as it says in the tagline of this blog, Agile / Lean is a journey, not a destination; a way of life, not a target to be checked off.

If you accept those assumptions, then the abstract virtues summarize what we’re trying to do to create high-performing teams executing an empirical process.

Empowerment is truly giving everyone in the organization the opportunity to contribute. Since we don’t know precisely what we’ll encounter along the way, we need all brains on deck, noticing opportunities and problems we didn’t anticipate, watching for risks we did anticipate, and coming up with creative solutions to issues we encounter. Further, that opportunity to make a difference provides the intrinsic motivation that studies show is essential to success in empirical processes.

Visibility provides the context for the empowered team to operate within.   It’s an old management precept that people will deliver against whatever you pay attention to, so make sure the things you care about are clear to see, then let those empowered people swarm on issues to deliver what you want.

Empowerment and Visibility are probably the biggest challenges managers face, as well as the place for managers to exercise their own creativity and make the biggest impact. The other abstract virtues are a bit more technical:

Eliminate Waste is borrowed from Lean, and we’ll have a lot to say about it. Everybody is in favor of eliminating waste — until their own job or favorite on-the-job activity is classified as waste! When that happens — and it always will, see Manage Change — it’s best to deal with it in the context of…

Optimize the Whole. Another Lean virtue, and is intentionally put last here: it’s very hard to do, for reasons that are technical, psychological, and political. Once again, the creativity of that empowered team, coupled with making the true costs and benefits visible, are the underlying requirements for success.