Leading through change: 3 change management tips for agile transformation

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Today, searches for “business agility” return over 100 million results—and it’s no surprise why. Nearly two-thirds of organizations consider the ability to adapt quickly a top strategic priority. And as businesses emerge from an ongoing pandemic that disrupted, well, everything, the need for agile and adaptable business models has only intensified. 

Digitalization, automation, globalization, and hybrid and remote work mean business is moving faster than ever before—and organizations that can’t change to meet new challenges and new opportunities will get left behind.  

But leading an enterprise-wide change, like agile transformation, isn’t easy. According to the 2021 Business Agility report, resistance to change is the number one barrier to an organization on their business agility journey.

As the report said: "While leaders of change adopt a plan, its implementation is resisted because of the significant shift in way of working that it represents."

That means leaders need to be intentional and strategic about their involvement in change management for an organization to reach its business agility goals.

In other words, for an enterprise-wide agile transformation to be effective—and even more importantly, sustainable—leaders must take an active role in change management.

What role do senior leaders play in change management?

Change management is the process of overseeing the transition or transformation of an organization’s operations, goals, or technologies. Its purpose is to implement change strategically while helping people adapt to change. 

While some organizations have dedicated change management teams or roles, senior leaders still play an important part in the change management ecosystem—particularly for large-scale and complex changes like agile transformation.

So what does this look like?

Agile principles were once isolated to development teams. But today, organizations are applying these same principles—develop iteratively, release frequently, focus on the customer, and collaborate through a cross-functional team—to their operating models at every level. 

Implementing agile transformation in an organization occurs across five dimensions:

  • Strategy: The shared purpose and vision embodied throughout the business.
  • Structure: A network of empowered teams. 
  • Process: Rapid decision and improvement cycles. 
  • People: A dynamic people model that drives passion.
  • Technology: Next-generation enabling technology.    

In order to successfully drive change at every level and achieve alignment across these dimensions, executives and senior leaders must act as primary sponsors of change. They are responsible for promoting the initiative, authorizing the budget and resources necessary to implement change, and actively driving change throughout. 

Senior leaders are essential to successful change management because they provide the foundation and driving force behind the change. Without senior leadership buy-in and promotion, it will be next to impossible to motivate people and implement sustainable change at scale. 

Managing resistance 

Change isn’t easy, especially when it comes in the form of large-scale agile transformation. Agile originated in development teams, so they may be used to it, but business agility requires the entire organization to function in agile ways. 

This means some teams may put up more resistance. For instance, departments like HR, finance, and legal may require additional training, education, and support in this process. Without clear communication, these departments may have a harder time understanding why they need to change.

That’s why senior leadership buy-in is so crucial. Leaders' involvement in and championing of change management can help get these teams on board and drive alignment across functions. 

How leaders can champion change management for successful agile transformation

It’s clear leadership plays a key role in the success of your change management strategy. But what can executives and senior management actually do to help lead the organization through a successful agile transformation?

1. Align on the vision for change

Lack of leadership alignment is a critical challenge to becoming more agile. When top leaders aren’t on the same page about strategy, goals, or the underlying need for change, that misalignment will translate to confusion and apathy from the employees under them. And it will effectively stall progress in adopting and implementing lasting change. That is why it is so important to align on the vision for change first. 

Before moving forward with your change management strategy:

  • Identify your vision for change
  • Assess the impact and risks of change 
  • Outline how you will measure the success of change
  • Determine how you will support the organization throughout the change 

Agile transformation typically means redesigning and reimagining the organization’s operating model. But without clear alignment on vision and strategy, implementing agile principles such as experimentation and cross-functional teams can lead to disjointed results as different teams or managers take their own approaches.  

Build alignment from day one and develop your strategy for change with a strategic change canvas. A strategic change canvas is a document that outlines the vision for change, the importance of change, a measure of success, impacts, and risks. It provides leadership with a single source of truth and acts as a unifying document for change. 

strategic change
strategic change template example (click on image to modify online)

2. Communicate the “why” behind the change

Alignment is the first step to change management. But a unified approach can only take you so far without clear, consistent, and ongoing communication. 

People tend to be resistant to change—that’s no surprise. But if they understand the purpose and value behind the change, they are much more likely to get onboard. 

The trick is making sure you’re actually communicating effectively. It turns out, leaders often overestimate how well they are communicating with their employees. An article by McKinsey explains that “many transformation leaders falsely assume that the ‘why’ is clear to the broader organization and consequently fail to spend enough time communicating the rationale behind change efforts.”

In practice, this means your communication strategy can’t just be a one-and-done approach. Leaders need to communicate frequently in multiple ways across multiple channels. They need to reiterate what the change is, how it will take effect, and most importantly why.

What is the purpose behind the change? How will an agile approach impact the business for the better? How will the changes benefit the employees?  

Your “why” for agile transformation could be competitive market advantage, increased innovation opportunities, more ownership and autonomy over work, or increased employee engagement and empowerment.  

In times of transformation, McKinsey recommends that “leaders develop a change story that helps all stakeholders understand where the company is headed, why it is changing, and why this change is important. Building in a feedback loop to sense how the story is being received is also useful.”

Collecting feedback from teams is critical here to proactively curb resistance and address their concerns head on. 

3. Lead by example 

Finally, leaders must be role models for change. This is particularly true when it comes to agile transformation as the change requires a fundamental shift in the way the organization approaches business. 

McKinsey cites role modeling as one of the key actions to change mindsets and behaviors—and an essential factor in the success of agile transformation. Without leadership modeling the change at the forefront, employees will struggle to buy-in to the change and understand what change actually looks like in practice.  

One of the biggest ways to model agile transformation is through mindset. 

An agile mindset involves:

  • Trusting and respecting the teams
  • Meeting change with flexibility and openness
  • Welcoming feedback and new ideas 
  • Embracing creativity and collaboration
  • Focusing on continuous improvement

People mimic the attitudes and behaviors of the groups and leaders around them—either consciously or subconsciously. And leadership has a disproportionate influence on the culture and mindset of the organization. By modeling the agile changes you want to see, you demonstrate what is expected of the organization and encourage people to adopt those same behaviors. 

The future is change

Leading through change is not easy—especially at the scale and complexity of agile transformation. But despite the challenges, leadership has an outsized role to play—and one of the biggest impacts—in setting the foundation for success. 

Misalignment between senior leadership, inadequate communication, and lack of modeling the desired changes all threaten the success of agile transformation. Give your business the best chance of success by aligning on your vision early, sharing a compelling narrative for the future, and leading change by example.   

It will take time, patience, and courage, but increasing business agility is worth it. 

agile transformation

Learn more about how to lead and sustain agile transformation. 

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Learn more about how to lead and sustain agile transformation.

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