Get certified - Transform your world of work today


Challenges in Agile Change Management

12 June 2017

Priyanjana Deb
TUI Group

Abhik Datta
Student Loans Company


To understand Agile change, it is important to know what triggered the evolution of Agile in corporate organizations. With the beginning of the Internet revolution in the early 1990s, organizations were challenged by the fact that the time taken between identifying a business need and converting that into viable technology can prohibit success.1 More often than not, the need for the product no longer exists when the technology goes into production.

Being Agile gives organizations the opportunity and flexibility to go live quicker and achieve an earlier return on investment (ROI). Because the time to market is quicker, it is possible to incorporate early customer feedback and build products suited to the changing market needs.2 Agile is efficient and frugal and incorporates Lean values of vision, knowledge, and empowerment. The result is a workforce more aligned to achieving overall organizational goals and an open culture of trust, quality, and customer focus.

Non-Agile or traditional project management thinking

The 1970s were the golden age of modern computing. Most legacy software development practices (e.g., Waterfall) were derived from manufacturing and physical engineering principles. Waterfall was defined by distinct phases, such as gathering requirements, before actual product deployment. Although the initial intent was to allow feedback from one phase back to a previous step, that was rarely feasible on account of commitment to deadlines and budget.
Waterfall Methodology (Source:

While manufacturing may benefit from such a process-heavy approach, software development can be considered both a science and an art, a merger of technology and aestheticism. The industry soon realized that the rigid structure of Waterfall and its inability to incorporate quick changes and respond to dynamic market needs would soon render it a legacy practice in the software world. As businesses turned more and more toward technology, there was a need to find a way to release new versions quarterly, monthly, weekly, daily. Agile and its variants, such as DevOps, Extreme Programming, and others, emerged from this need.1

Agile adoption encourages imbibing the well-known Agile values of prioritizing individuals and interactions, and of responding to change and customer collaboration at all levels of the organization (not just within the IT/technology departments). It is a struggle for companies that have followed the clearly defined structure of Waterfall to suddenly become pro-change and embrace a new work culture and mindset.

Implementing Agile transformation using Kotter’s 8-step model

Kotter's 8-step model

Create a sense of urgency6

Before initiating an Agile transformation, the leadership must understand why moving to Agile is imperative and what benefits they are hoping to achieve. The communication from leadership should be transparent, so that all stakeholders are motivated and can answer the question, “What’s in it for me?” It is hard to predict the benefit of Agile for an organization that is undergoing the change just because “everyone else is.”
Why organizations turn Agile
The need for Agile change can stem from a crisis. The financial debacle of 2008 caused many organizations to rethink the way they did business, moving toward frugality in operations. Competition, diversification, technological changes are other factors that can stimulate an urgent need for change in organizations.

Forming a powerful guiding coalition

Fundamentally, Agile places more importance on “individuals and interactions” over “processes and tools.” While the decision to move to Agile can be taken by executive leadership, successful implementation rests with mid-level management who work directly with delivery teams on the ground. “Change agents” must believe in the Agile values to be able to effectively mentor and implement Agile practices within their teams.
Agile change agents show leadership and initiative. They give importance to building relationships and empowering individuals, while at the same time exerting their influence to promote Agile adoption and an open team culture. An effective change agent is not alarmed by resistance to change. He or she encourages conversation and works toward addressing concerns.

Creating a vision

Creating a vision starts with determining the core values that are essential to change. In the case of Agile transformation, we refer to the Agile Manifesto to give us the four pillars that form the foundation of Agile practices.
Agile Manifesto (

Practical implementation of Agile values comes in different forms in different organizations. It is important to note that “not one size fits all.” While some teams may benefit from the structure of Scrum events, others may find the visual representation of Kanban more aligned to their organizational culture. Leaders must define their short-term and long-term objectives and a strategy that helps define how to achieve said objectives.

Communicating the vision

Agile change agents are responsible for the dissemination of Agile values and principles at all levels of the organization. Because the change in mindset toward Agile must grow organically within all individuals in all levels of the company, continuous training and skill-building activities are essential.

Agile transformation is successful when the Agile sponsor is able to communicate clearly why the transformation is happening — what the problem was and what they are hoping to achieve as a result of this transformation. Communication is a central pillar of Agile. The environment should encourage frank and honest discussions between business stakeholders and ground-level teams, because better decisions are made when teams are happy, empowered, and motivated and when they trust the leadership.

Empowering others to act on the vision

With Agile, we move away from centralized management toward a more decentralized work culture, where everyone feels ownership in what they are to deliver. Empowered, self-organizing teams naturally make better decisions than an individual. Teams are motivated to inspect and adapt at every step. This is very different from legacy project management methodologies, where the power rests on project managers who are frequently not involved in the intricate functioning of the team.7

What builds empowered teams

Agile works on the tenets of “servant Lleadership.” A servant leader leads by example, takes regular buy-in from teams, frequently invites feedback, and removes impediments to the team’s progress.

With great power comes great responsibility! Once the team has committed to a certain delivery within iteration, they have control over the estimation, engineering, and technology. Teams provide their own estimates of the stories and plan their hours for each task. This makes the teams all the more accountable for their commitments. If, under extreme circumstances, a team is not able to meet their commitments, they are not penalized. Instead, they are encouraged to retrospect on what prevented them from achieving their team objectives.

Planning for and creating short term wins

Change is not easy. It takes years for an organization to build its signature culture. While undergoing Agile transformation, it is imperative that teams continue to feel motivated. Agile recommends short-term development iterations, almost never more than three weeks long. At the beginning of the iteration, teams are expected to plan what they intend to deliver during the time frame. A dedicated product owner, who is a representative from the business and who is responsible for the product vision, helps the team prioritize and pick up a defined set of goals they hope to achieve. The teams have complete flexibility in defining the means by which they hope to achieve the set goal. Usually, each objective is broken down into micro-level achievable individual tasks of not more than a day’s duration. This ensures that individuals within a team feel a sense of accomplishment every day when they finish a task. This method also gives great visibility when a particular task is blocked from progress.

Agile Storyboard (

At the end of the iteration, teams are asked to present what they have developed to the various stakeholders, such as end users, business representative, leadership, and project managers. Stakeholders are introduced to the product incrementally, instead of in a big-bang display of the final product at the end of a 12–18 month project. Early engagement with stakeholders allows the team to gauge whether they are on track to build the right product. In any case, regular demos also allow Agile sponsors to gauge whether their vision for change is being embraced organically by teams, and other business stakeholders to understand how self-organizing teams operate.

Consolidating improvements and producing still more change

Agile retrospectives are a powerful tool that let teams experiment and learn from their experiences. Agile does not frown upon failure. An organization that wants to get the best out of Agile implementation would foster a culture of calculated risk-taking and push teams to innovate by disrupting. Perhaps this is why start-ups flourish in an Agile environment.
             IDELA loop

Continuous improvement is at the heart of the Agile culture. Agile teams strive to reduce wasteful processes, reuse artifacts, and upskill themselves based on lessons learned from past experiences. As teams achieve Agile maturity, the cycle of learning become more robust and soon teams can deliver more in quicker iteration cycles of Ideate – Develop – Evaluate – Launch – Adapt (the IDELA loop).8

Institutionalizing new approaches

Once the Agile culture has started to thrive in an organization, leadership must take care to continue to build and support the environment of openness and individual empowerment. For example, some companies now look inward to encourage disruptive innovation by organizing “hackathons” or “innovation” days where individuals spend a day focused on converting ideas into real features.

Meanwhile, legacy performance management systems must be altered to measure team performances. Measuring individual performances leads to an environment of hostility and unhealthy competition among individuals. Instead, Agile workplaces should work on providing team-level incentives for achieving team-level goals.

Also, performance feedback should be bilateral — companies should encourage a culture where teams can also provide feedback on improving processes and practices to leadership. Teams should be allowed to evaluate the performance of the change agents in terms of how effective they were in simplifying the change process.

Once Agile as a practice has been institutionalized, it can be scaled across all sectors of the organization. The end goal is to achieve a level of efficiency that achieves continuous delivery via an Agile release train. But such an enterprise-level change does not lead to stasis. A constant emphasis on learning and adapting ensures that the organization undergoes continuous improvement by unfreezing its current state, changing to an improved state, and then refreezing the improvements.11

Resistance to change

Human beings have a natural fear of the unknown. However, it also interesting to note that people normally do not resist change that they believe is beneficial to them. There are, on a high level, eight primary reasons why people resist change:9

There are four common personas that can form an Agile Resistance Coalition:5
Whenever there is a large-scale change happening in an organization, it is important to understand that there will be resistance. Effective leaders look at resistors not as a problem but as an individual who needs to be understood.

Challenges for change agents

So far, we have discussed the transformation journey and tried to make a framework that organizations and leaders can follow to effectively implement the change. But does following the steps mean there will be a smooth transition? The answer is no. Dynamic environments pose numerous challenges for change agents. They need to choose which framework or process to incorporate, considering the current state of the organization. Though change often brings opportunity and optimism, leaders need to keep in mind that they might lose a few key resources in this transformation journey. It is more or less easy to adopt Agile, but it is very hard to maintain in the right way. Change agents should put all their efforts toward protecting the team from any external forces. Unlike other changes, the Agile transformation is about continuous improvement. Leaders have a wider role to play in order to motivate teams and give them appropriate organizational environment and support to keep improving and innovating. Only through an effective leadership can an organization can achieve the sustaining benefit of Agile transformation.

  10. Whitepaper : Sustaining Business Continuity for Digital Start-ups in India (Priyanjana Deb, Abhik Datta)


Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 5 (7 ratings)


Be the first to add a comment...

You must Login or Signup to comment.

The community welcomes feedback that is constructive and supportive, in the spirit of better understanding and implementation of Scrum.


Newsletter Sign-Up