The Marriage of Agile and Organizational Change Management

10 years ago the title of this post would have been “I pronounce you husband and wife” or “I  pronounce you man and wife”, but that’s outdated thinking. The world is different today, and thankfully so.

Much like the union between two people creates a stronger, unified entity, so it goes in the world of business. One such union that has been happening lately in the business world, is the union of ideas between different communities. In particular, many communities have been plucking ideas from the Agile community which is relatively new compared to the management, leadership and change communities.

Jen Frahm is a well respected leader in the change community, and she recently tweeted this during a session at Agile Australia:

I couldn’t agree more.

Kotter’s 8 steps is one of the more mainstream change models that Agile practitioners have latched onto. 8 steps to ensure change? Sounds good to me!

Jen’s reaction to seeing an old model –  which is largely thought of as being outdated in the CM world – being talked about at an Agile conference is the same reaction Agile practitioners have when the ’traditional’ business community latches on to ‘Agile’ as being the new, and greatest thing.

Agile practitioners will roll their eyes, and point out that Agile isn’t new…it’s been around for 15 years!  Well, I guess you could say it’s 30 years old if you include the creation of Scrum by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in the mid-80’s and you consider that Scrum is a form of Agile.

The interesting thing is, the change management community has been around much longer. I’d argue most of the good management, change, and leadership books are inspired by Douglas McGregor who wrote The Human Side of Enterprise in 1957. If you’ve heard of Theory X and Theory Y, this is where it came from.

Warren Bennes summarized McGregor’s thoughts in the 25th anniversary re-printing of the book as:

  • active participation by all involved
  • a transcending concern with individual dignity, worth and growth
  • reexamination and resolution of conflict between individual needs and organizational goals, through effective interpersonal relationships between superiors and subordinates
  • a concept of influence that relies not on coercion, compromise, evasion, or avoidance, pseudo support, or bargaining, but on openness, confrontations and “working through” differences.
  • a belief that human growth is self-generated and furthered by  an environment of trust, feedback, and authentic human relationships

To me, all good Agile, Change, OD and Management books/theories models reflect these 5 statements. I further distill them down into 2 main categories:

  1. Co-Creation of Change: Involve the people who have to live with the consequences of the change into the design of the change.
  2. People first. Always. 
    1. Intrinsic Motivation: This statement speaks to intrinsic motivation of which there are many theories explained by Jurgen Appelo inManagement 3.0. CHAMP FROGS itself is a more modern take on understanding intrinsic motivation because it’s simple and easy for people who aren’t psychologists and scholars to understand.
    2. Alignment: Simple, but not easy. Alignment isn’t a one-and-done exercise. Frequent dialogue and a stance of coaching and support by the change team is what facilitates alignment between people affected by the change from top leadership to front-line people.
    3. TrustThe Speed of Trust5 Dysfunctional of a TeamCrucial ConversationsDifficult Conversations and other relationship and trust books are based on this statement. It’s important to understand what motivates people, but it’s also important to align that with the organization’s goals.
    4. Celebrate our differences:  Another “people” statement. For me, this is about understanding people’s preferences of which there are many behavioural profiles based on Carl Jung theory (MBTI, Keirsey’s Temperaments, DISC, True Colours, and Discovery Insights)

Change and Agile practitioners seem to be in competition to ‘invent’ a new model to gain some oneupmanship in consulting or book sales, but the ideas underneath aren’t new. The ideas in my book aren’t new either. They are simply re-shaped by taking good ideas from the greatest thinkers of the last century and making them more relevant in today’s change-intensive world.

Lean Startup is a great example of this. It’s nothing more than a cooler version of Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA) that is more relevant in today’s digital, creative economy! PDCA is a feedback-driven approach to improvement just like the Lean Change Management cycle is a feedback-driven approach to managing change. It would be ridiculous to say I invented a feedback-loop!

I think of myself as the wedding planner of the union between Agile and OD/CM.

Agile Community, here’s what your partner is bringing to the table:

In the early 2000’s, the Academy of Management published their top 25 most influential management books. To the Agile community, this is a fantastic reference to some of the greatest thinkers of the last century including Peter Drucker, Chris Argyris, and, gulp, Fredrik Taylor.

Fredrik Taylor gets the brunt of the blame for the shape of today’s management from the Agile community. I believe his views are not well understood by anyone other than Niels Phlaeging who is likely the only person who’s actually read about Mr Taylor!

Taylor’s philosophy  was: The rule of knowledge is more important than tradition or personal opinion. Niels is the only ‘Agile’ practitioner I’ve ever heard speak about Taylor in a positive light. You use knowledge to adjust your management system to your context.

Unfortunately, at the time, Taylor’s context was repeatable work, done by un-skilled workers where the carrot/stick method was deemed revolutionary. That influenced management and leadership schools and by the time the 70’s came around, that thinking was entrenched in the minds of today’s leaders. Give it another generation, it’ll change. Today’s world needs to apply the same philosophy, namely, learn how to think in your own context.

The point of this article is that the Agile and OD/CM communities are driving towards the same goal. Improve the world of work with good practices backed by decades of research by some of the greatest thinkers of the last century.

Here is the list of the top 25 most influential management books. Hint, the newest is from 1982.

Some of my favourite “non-Agile” practitioners  thinkers include:

Jen Frahm

Heather Stagle

Daryl Conner

Patrick Lencioni

Gail Severini

Luc Galoppin

Paul Gibbons

OD/CM Communities, your partner is bringing to the table:

Agile’ is simply constructed from decades of work you already know, it’s just been packaged differently to be more relevant in today’s world. Whether you think we’re in the information age, digital age or creative age, work is less physical and more mental.

Agile brings transparency, actual transparency through big information radiators, not the ‘transparency’ OD/CM has talked about for decades. Agile brings a set of values and principles that helps guide an iterative approach to organizational change and change management. It also brings an extremely powerful trigger for approaching change differently simply through the use of the word ‘agile’. I won’t elaborate on why that can be dangerous, but sometimes a strong trigger gets people interested in a seemingly new way to help facilitate change

Just as the Agile community would be well served to check out that list of the 25 top management books, the CM/OD community would be well served to read up on my favourite ‘Agile’ thinkers’

Esther Derby

Don Gray

Steve Smith

Jerry Wienberg

Johanna Rothman

Niels Phlaeging

Jurgen Appelo

Now that the wedding is over and Agile and OD/CM are unified, it’s time for one partner to drag the other partner to their pre-marital community parties!  OD/CM folks, Agile is going to drag you to the hundreds of Agile conferences and events all over the world:

Agile Alliance

Agile and Beyond



Agile Tour conferences

Spark the Change

Agile folks, OD/CM is going to drag you to the hundreds of OD/CM events all over the world:

Better Workplace

ACMP (Just ignore anything related to their ridiculous ‘Standard’)

Impact 99

OD Practitioners


There will be some marital spats along the way as each partner re-invents something that has already been invented, but don’t worry, it’s natural! Just remember, never go to bed angry!

The more Agile and OD/CM mix and mingle and mashup ideas, the better we’ll be able to help build more resilient organizations that have happier workers.

Please leave a link to your favourite Agile/OD/CM/Leadership thinkers and conferences, the more cross-pollination between these communities, the better!

*This post originally appeared on Linked In Pulse.

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