Navigating Organizational Change


Interested in a fresh perspective of this post? I wrote and article on Linked In with a different view of how people process change.

Update – November 26: Facilitation Graphics did a fantastic visual summary of this post:


Over a decade ago, I was one of three people working in an early stage startup. This company was the first to create a mobile content creation and delivery platform for wireless carriers in Canada. One of the co-founders handled the content licensing, and the other co-founder built and maintained the platform. I ended up managing the content catalog, and storefront, which included creating ringtones, and wallpaper that people could buy, and download onto their phones.

When we would license a song for ringtone distribution we’d email each other; “Anybody know this song? Who can create it?” Ah, the good ‘ol days sitting in front of my Roland JX-8P banging out the theme to Rocky! Fast-forward a year and the founders sold the company. Not much changed over the next couple of weeks, but one day I came into work and found a box of business cards on my desk: “Jason Little, Director of Storefront Development”. The motivational nudge to my ego far outweighed the uncertainty of working with new management.


Those shiny new business cards came with a message. “Meet Mike, your new boss.”


Who is this guy? How can I prove to him I’m good enough? Is he going to come in and tell me how to do my job?

I was young, in-experienced, and wasn’t the model employee for the next couple of months while I figured out how to make sense of the change. There was no change management team handling the integration of the two companies, what got me through it was Mike, my new boss. He had the skills and experience to make this change work, and is still the best manager I’ve ever had.

Knowing what I know today, what words of wisdom would I have for Mike to help him deal with “2003 Jason”?

Well, I’d explain loss. This type of change comes with a sense of loss, despite the upgraded title. It also comes with feelings of fear. Is Jason ready for that responsibility? I’d probably explain how Jason is likely going to be a pain in the ass to work with while he pushes his way through a roller-coaster ride of feelings.

After the shock wears off, Jason will probably be in denial for a while, then he’ll likely get angry or frustrated. After that, he’ll start to come around. He’ll start experimenting in order to figure out his place in the new world, and eventually the hubbub will die down.

Give him time Mike. Give him time and over-communicate early on about why he’s been given these new responsibilities, and help him grow. Fortunately for me, Mike already knew all that, and to this day, is the best manager I’ve ever had.

The change I went through was quite simple compared to the disruption that can be caused by an Agile transformation at your average company. My title changed, and so did the inputs to my work but not many of my daily routines were affected until we started growing like crazy. In an Agile transformation, everything needs to change.

Developers need to learn how to work with business people. Managers need to learn how to let go of some control. New processes create extra work until the organization learns that these new processes should make some old processes obsolete. It’s a massive shift!


Now imagine everyone in a mid-size organization of 200 people all going through the same emotional phases I did with Mike’s help. Now imagine that they don’t have Mike around! How can you know in advance how long and how much this change is going to cost? You can’t.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross describes these emotional phases as the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. While her work was largely related to helping terminally ill patients, her model shows patterns of emotions people can experience when they feel a sense of loss.

Kubler-Ross Change Curve
This is a modified version for this post, please use the original found here

This is a preview of some of the ideas in my upcoming book: Lean Change Management. When people are lost in a sea of emotions as a result of a disruptive change like an Agile transformation, there are counter-measures you can take that will help you make sense of what to do next.

  • Create Alignment: Start by creating a big visible room to manage the transformation program and create a ‘change canvas’ with the executives. On flip chart paper, write down in non-buzzwordy language why this change happening, who is affected and what the benefits are. Next, put up a “feedback” area next to these 3 statements, and let employees poke holes in each of them. This gets executives and the change team feedback and because it’s anonymous, it’ll actually be helpful!
  • Maximize Communication: Use informal communication sessions called Lean Coffee to establish open and honest dialogue about the change. Sometimes when people feel frustrated they need to be listened to. Don’t worry about having a solid plan and outcomes from those sessions. If people want to complain, let them! Ideally run this Lean Coffee session in the big visible room you created!
  • Spark Motivation: Understand what is holding people back from trying new practices. Motivation isn’t everything, sometimes people need to develop capability first, but look for what motivates different people. Someone may be a natural fit for a Scrum Master role (assuming Scrum is one of the processes you’re implementing!). Get them training or coaching. Send people to an Agile conference or bring in a speaker from the Agile community. Do something to help people break out of the funk.
  • Develop Capability: This stage is perfect for the “safe to fail” phrase. Build deliberate slack time to let people practice new skills. Innovation and collaboration doesn’t happen by chance; you as a change agent or manager need to enable it.
  • Work Expo by Jurgen AppeloShare Knowledge: Get teams together to share stories. You do not want to be dependent on your coach or consultants, encourage teams to learn from each other. Create a Work Expo. Host a town hall and let teams showcase what they’ve done.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of what you can do to manage the emotional response people have to change. These are some of the ideas in Lean Change Management that can help you, as a change agent, help your stakeholders understand that planning alone isn’t enough to manage the complexity and disruption caused by an Agile transformation.

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