Traditional VS Agile Change Management


No business can survive and thrive forever without changing and evolving. Even the best systems, processes, or even business models will eventually fall prey to diminishing returns. That’s why getting change management right is so critical. 

Teams need to be capable of figuring out what kinds of improvements they need to make, identifying the best solution, and implementing it if they’re going to be successful in the long-term. Managers need reliable systems to manage this process.

Unfortunately, most are stuck with ineffective traditional approaches that slow this down dramatically. In the process, teams miss out on the opportunity to improve how they work, make team members happier, and hit their KPIs. When you consider the benefits accrued from making better changes faster, finding a better way translates into serious improvements.

But what options are out there? While most businesses today still use traditional change management, Agile change management is making waves as more and more firms adopt Agile ways of working. So let’s dive into just what change management is at its core and uncover the right approach to make more effective changes faster.

What Is Change Management?

Change management is the controlled identification and implementation of required changes within a system. In practice, this breaks down into a few elements:

  1. Identifying what needs to change

  2. Determining the best alternative or improvement

  3. Implementing the change

  4. Tracking its effect over time

For example, let’s say you’ve figured out that your team is routinely missing deadlines for their work. You’ve already identified what needs to change (meeting deadlines), so the next step is to figure out what you can change to fix the problem. You might decide a different kind of work-tracking tool with better reminders about upcoming deadlines may be the right fit. Now you need to get the team to use it.

The last step is often overlooked but it’s perhaps the most important one. Without tracking the results of what you’re doing, it’s easy to just change things and feel like you’ve accomplished something without knowing whether you actually fixed the initial problem. In this case, that would mean getting a baseline measurement of the problem before tracking missed deadlines over time to see whether any improvements are sustained.

For example, your team may stop missing deadlines simply because you drew their attention to the problem, not because of the new system. As a result, they may revert to their old ways over time. So which system can most easily get from wondering what even needs to happen to implementing successful changes at your organization?

Understanding Traditional Change Management

At the core of traditional change management is its deep connection with Waterfall methodology. This is a linear and sequential approach to project management in which teams have to fully complete each step in the process before moving on to the next one. Thus, you generally measure whether a project is on track by noting whether it’s hitting its milestones.

When projects are structured this way, implementing changes or improvements usually has to happen at the right stage or it risks slowing things down. So major changes may be left for after large projects are completed, delaying them for months or even years. Add to this the reality that people are changing jobs more frequently than ever before and it’s easy to see how many opportunities for improvements can get lost over the course of a single project due to employee churn.

Understanding Agile Change Management

If traditional change management is built around a linear and sequential approach, Agile change management is built around continuous iterative cycles. Change is viewed as an always-on process in which organizations constantly respond to changes in their business environment.

For example, if your Agile team holds a retrospective meeting every two weeks, this is an excellent opportunity to decide on potential changes to implement. Those changes can be trialed in the next two-week sprint before being adjusted further if necessary. Contrast this with the more traditional annual review in which changes are implemented once a year or only once a project is complete.

So the difference is that Agile Change Management comes with far more opportunities to pause, reflect, and decide on what can be improved. Instead of waiting months for the right moment in a drawn-out Waterfall process, in Agile change management, you can more quickly spot an opportunity for improvement, give it a try, and decide whether it’s worth keeping.

In theory, you’re always experimenting with some changes and always have the option to iterate on them during your next sprint. So changes don’t just come faster, but they’re also accompanied by more opportunities to hone them. 

To somewhat oversimplify, this is like improving by 20% once every 6 months or improving by 5% every two weeks. That smaller but more frequent approach to change adds up to far more impact over time. 

Agile vs Traditional Change Management

Now that we’ve established the basics of these two approaches to change management, we can dive deeper into the key differences every manager should understand. The first and perhaps most important one is at the heart of the differences between traditional and Agile ways of working.

Linear vs Continuous

Imagine someone on your team has a fantastic idea for improving a process but you just started a major 9-month project and you can’t make such a process change in the middle of the work. The kind of starting and stopping that defines traditional change management makes these sorts of situations inevitable, resulting in lost opportunities for real improvement.

Continuous improvement also has the benefit of transforming the perception of change from something big and potentially scary that happens rarely to a normal part of your team’s work process. This touches on why Agile change management is so helpful for creating a team mindset built around continuously improving.

Milestones vs Adaptation

Closely tied in with the linear vs continuous difference is the importance of milestones vs iteration. Traditional change and project management alike rely on working to achieve pre-set milestones. The problem comes when the world changes and those milestones are no longer relevant by the time you arrive at them.

Agile change management and Agile work in general is built around the idea of adapting as you go. Individuals and teams are empowered to figure out the best approach for themselves. So, for example, a stakeholder may tell the team what they need, but the team will use those iterative processes to continuously work towards better ways to deliver the value requested.

In terms of change management, the difference plays out in thinking about a change being “done”. A traditional approach might decide the team needs a new project management tool, set a milestone of implementing a new tool, and consider the change completed once that tool is in use. But the reality is that there will still be ways to improve how that tool is used long after it has been formally adopted.

How Each Change Management Type Affects Mindset

Beyond simply appreciating the nuts and bolts of how each approach creates meaningful changes, it’s worth appreciating the effect each has on the mindset of the teams using each approach. If team members know that changes can only be attempted at certain times and under certain conditions, they’re far more likely to abandon ideas because they feel unlikely to bear fruit.

In an Agile change management environment, by contrast, regular experimentation encourages team members to not just embrace improvement ideas but actively develop more of them. This can be in the form of upskilling, or just combining empowerment with real accountability. So instead of cultivating a culture and mindset which sees change as an occasional necessity, you can create one which embraces continuous change and improvement as a natural part of work.

How Teams Feel About Change Management

Of course, the best change management system in the world is only valuable if your team members can truly embrace it. While most Agile transitions face some resistance, the biggest cause of such resistance is a simple lack of training or knowledge of Agile approaches.

So while traditional change management is generally the default and making the transition to Agile change management requires some work, the results are worth it. 63% of Agile practitioners say they manage changing priorities better than during their pre-Agile days.

This is why you should consider not just how your teams may react to the prospect of adopting Agile change management (particularly considering the mindset traditional methods create), but what the end goal will be: faster, more adaptive changes.

Better Change Management Begins With You

With the impact of better change management being so far-reaching, it’s clear why it’s such a vital skill for long-term success. Even compared to far better functioning teams, a team with excellent Agile change management practices will eventually outperform them. But what does it take to get there?

Our research has consistently showed that the biggest hurdle to implementing Agile ways of working is the need for knowledge and training. So if you’re considering trying out Agile change management, we encourage you to start with a solid foundation in Agile business fundamentals. Our Introduction to Business Agility Course will equip you with everything you need to begin unlocking the value of Agile methods in your organization.

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