Dive Into Agile Adoption: How to Prepare Your Team for Change31 Aug 2023
In engineering, electrical resistance is illustrated by this symbol: . I’ve always thought it was an apt representation – not just of resistance in an electrical circuit but of the resistance we humans put up when faced with change we don’t like. Instead of moving toward our destination in a straight line, we zig-zag back and forth, expending precious time and energy as we seek first to deny, then to resist, and sometimes even to actively work against the change that is coming.
As project professionals, you should expect to encounter varying levels of resistance from your teams and organizations as you implement agile methods for the first time – especially in industries and functions outside of IT that are relatively new to agile.
But we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Change is difficult. It’s in our nature to resist change. We’re bombarded every day with new ideas and innovations. We need some framework to protect ourselves – some filtering mechanism so that only the most persistent, clearly superior approaches take root.
People need to see the benefits of new ways of working before they’re willing to invest time and effort in adopting them. Let’s face it: learning something new and implementing new methods is hard work. Most of us are comfortably set in our ways and want to stick with familiar processes.
To successfully incorporate agile methods in our projects, therefore, we need to anticipate resistance and put strategies in place to address the concerns and likely reactions of our teams and organizations.
Understand the Sources of Resistance
The first step is to understand why people resist change. Fortunately, there’s been a lot of research on this topic, much of it dealing with the sense of loss that people experience when facing change. This sense of loss can be around:
- Security: Going from being thought of as an expert in the old approach to being a beginner in the new approach.
- Pride: Being thrown in with other new learners can feel like a loss of status – particularly for more senior managers.
- The satisfaction they take in their work: Returning to a state of learning by trial and error can diminish a manger’s sense of pride and satisfaction in their work.
- Sense of freedom and authority: Managers may experience a loss of autonomy and freedom if they feel they must rely on others for coaching and direction.
- Sense of self-worth: The cumulative effect of all this “loss” may be a reduced sense of one’s very self-worth.
As Don Kirkpatrick in his book “How to Manage Change Effectively” notes, this cumulative sense of loss can be exacerbated when:
- The change initiative and its implications are misunderstood
- There’s a belief that the change is misdirected and doesn’t make sense for the organization or that the team’s extra efforts won’t be rewarded
- People have an overall low tolerance for change in their professional and personal lives
- There’s a lack of respect for those initiating the change
- People are excluded from the change initiative
- Change is seen as a criticism of how things were done in the past
- The timing is off – the change is occurring at a bad time or when other issues or problems are being dealt with
You may, of course, encounter different levels of resistance:
Level 1 – Confusion
This is the least severe level of resistance and usually results from a lack of information. You can address it through information – in the form of video calls, lunch and learns, discussion forums, websites, etc. – and by giving your team plenty of opportunities to provide feedback.
Level 2 – Resistance to Change (fear of loss)
This is more difficult to overcome because it’s directed at the change itself and stems from a fear of loss, as we’ve discussed. You can address this level of resistance by building strong working relationships with the resisters; embracing their concerns and bringing them on board in the role of official skeptics; listening with an open mind and acknowledging concerns; and by staying calm, engaged, and focused.
Level 3 – Entrenched Resistance (beyond the changes at hand)
This is the most difficult to overcome because it’s personal. It has less to do with the change at hand than with the people behind the change. Fortunately, it’s quite rare. Still, if you encounter it, be prepared for a struggle. You’ll need to continue to work on relationships, engage in candid conversations, and get people involved in the changes that affect them. You’ll also need to take care of yourself and be prepared for setbacks.
Recognize that One Size Doesn’t Fit All
This leads me to my next point: different stakeholders often have different interests and concerns:
Executives and Project Sponsors
- Interests: Economics, time-to-market, quality, competitive advantage, customer satisfaction
- Concerns: Risk of failure, unprecedented practices, counterintuitive planning approaches
- Interests: Ability to cater to requirements change, risk mitigation, team morale, management load
- Concerns: Fear of a loss of control, fear of role erosion
The Implementation Team
- Interests: Effective working practices, meaningful work, work-life balance, less bureaucracy
- Concerns: Change forced by management that doesn’t understand their day-to-day work
The End-User Community
- Interests: The features they want, ability to steer and influence the project, better quality, visible progress
- Concerns: Fear of not getting all the required features and benefits, concerns around quality in early iterations
- Interests: Reassurance of process, clear communication channels, opportunities for intervention
- Concerns: Apparent lack of control, continual requests for involvement, lack of a visible endpoint
These are broad generalizations, of course; individuals within each of these groups will have their own interests and concerns. Key to successfully engaging in a change initiative involves getting to know individual wants, needs, and concerns and then using that knowledge to help drive the change.
Create a Sense of Psychological Safety
Ideally, we want to create a psychologically safe change environment – where it's okay to “learn out loud.” Timothy Clark has identified four stages of psychological safety:
- Inclusion safety: Creating a team that welcomes and values diversity both in the backgrounds of its members and in the diversity of thinking that members bring to their work.
- Learner safety: Creating an environment where people feel comfortable asking questions. It’s particularly important for leaders to model this behavior – to demonstrate that they don’t have all the answers and that it’s okay to ask questions and explore options.
- Contributor safety: Where team members gain respect and permission and feel that they can participate as active and full members of the team.
- Challenger safety: Where team members feel comfortable questioning the status quo and how work gets done.
The best leaders lean into creating a psychologically safe environment. They understand the value of diversity, demonstrate that they are on a learning journey themselves, and empower their teams to share their work in progress and make the best possible local decisions.
Understand the Triggers of Change Acceptance
While stakeholders may resist change for all the reasons we’ve discussed, they also can be encouraged to accept change under the right circumstances. What levers do we have for turning resistance to change into receptivity? In general, people are supportive of change when:
- The change is seen as a personal gain: In security, money, authority, status or prestige, responsibility, working conditions, or achievement – e.g. promotion opportunities or gaining more marketable skills
- The change offers a new challenge and reduces boredom: When change leads to more interesting work
- There are opportunities to influence the change and be involved in its planning and implementation
- The timing is right: When people recognize the need for organizational change now
- The sources of the change are liked and respected
- We buy into the approach and process for bringing about the change
It’s important not only to address all possible sources of resistance to agile adoption but to also take advantage of these levers of acceptance. In the end, resistance and acceptance have a reciprocal relationship. In the parlance of electrical engineering, the greater the conductance (acceptance), the less the resistance – and vice versa. Electrical engineers even have an equation for it: G = 1/R, where G is conductance and R is resistance.
Back in the world of project management, it just makes sense to work both sides of the equation. If you want to be an agile superconductor, address each possible point of resistance while simultaneously boosting the levers of acceptance. That’s the path to success in breaking agile out of IT and embedding it at the core of our organizations.