Introducing Agile Methods: Mistakes to Avoid – Part 1
Introducing Agile Methods: Mistakes to Avoid - Part 3

Introducing Agile Methods: Mistakes to Avoid - Part 2

(Understanding Resistance to Change)

Fear_of_change_1 In Part 1 we looked at the W5 (Why, Who, What, When, Where) of introducing agile. Today in Part 2 we will look at Challenges and Resistance.

In Part 3 I will introduce a change framework to effectively implement agile methods (or other organizational changes). However, before I get to that we need to look at why change is difficult and why people resist change.

Change Challenges
As a believer in agile methods and someone who had witnessed the benefits they can bring and the great buzz of an effective agile team, I used to think rolling out the methods would be a no-brainer.

Mistake # 8: Underestimating the resistance to change.

Wrong, achieving successful lasting change is difficult. Changing processes is even harder because a process is a system designed to resist change. Think about it, if every new type of requirement or defect that came along required a change to our development process we would be in trouble. So processes are these abstract funnelling techniques that were deliberately designed to resist change, which makes throwing them out or morphing them, more difficult than changing, say our time recording system.

“…a process is a system designed to resist change”

In fact there are a number of challenges:

Achieving lasting changes is difficult

  • While people may be willing to try something new, it is a whole other story to get them to switch to it completely. Many a promising start has reverted back to the old way of doing things.

People are unlikely to blindly accept new approaches

  • People need to be convinced of the benefits of a new idea before they are willing to invest the effort of having to learn it. Many adults do very little learning, they just want to understand the easiest happy-path through their regular work day and stick to that. For some people, asking them to think, learn and adapt to new methods in addition to doing their job is like increasing their work load while keeping their pay the same – not that appealing.

Resistance to change is normal and healthy

  • We are bombarded by so many new ideas, goods and services it would be anarchy if we just adopted every new thing that came along. We need stability, standardization and norms to function properly. This also acts as a filtering mechanism that saves people from having to think about every new thing. They believe that the good stuff will stick and the poor ideas will fade away. Unfortunately some organizations are good at marketing crap, and some great ideas miss their mark, but on the whole we get by.

So we need to plan for resistance and have strategies in place to ensure worthwhile changes occur. Just explaining how agile methods are better is not going to ensure the whole scale rollout and adoption by an organization.

Mistake # 9: Think people will want to adopt agile methods because they are better.

Another issue is that the different stakeholder groups (Executives, Sponsors, Managers, Developers, Users, Supporting groups) will have their own interests and concerns. We must sell the relevant strengths and address the likely concerns for each stakeholder group

Executives and Project Sponsors
• Interests: Economics, time-to-market, quality, competitive advantage, customer satisfaction
• Concerns: Risk of failure, unprecedented practices, counter intuitive 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 development team
• Interests: Effective working practices, meaningful work, work-life balance, less bureaucracy
• Concerns: Resistance to changes forced upon them by “management

The user community
• Interests: The features they want, ability to steer and influence project, better quality, visible progress
• Concerns: Fear of not getting all the required features, concerns around quality in early iterations

Supporting groups
• Interests: Reassurance of process, clear communication channels, opportunities for intervention
• Concerns: Apparent lack of control, continual requests for involvement, lack of a visible end point

Mistake # 10: Think the same interests and concerns apply to all stakeholders.

These stakeholder interests and concerns are of course a broad generalization; individuals within each of these groups will have their own interests and concerns. A key part of successfully engaging help in a change initiative comes from getting to know individual wants, needs and concerns and then using these to help drive the change.

However we need to recognize the hot buttons for the various stakeholder groups and learn how to sell effectively to their wants. Equally, we need to listen and acknowledge people’s concerns, only then will they be willing to try something new.

Change Reaction
I think it is interesting that people often associate change with loss, and when we loose something we go through several recognizable stages of grieving. Find this hard to believe? Just read the following stages of loss and associated agile interpretations and see if you recognize any of them

Stage 1: DENIAL
Nice ideas, but they would not apply to my project, or how I work…

Stage 2: ANGER
No, I won’t change; you can not make me use stupid user stories…

OK, how about if I have 6 month iterations?

This is not working, nothing makes sense…

It was difficult, but I can now see how it helps….

Mistake # 11: Assume that people will act rationally

Triggers for Change Resistance
This sense of loss is a powerful reason why people often resist change. Fortunately for us there is a wealth of research on understanding and effecting change. Books such as “How to Manage Change Effectively” by Donald Kirkpatrick and “Leading Change” by John Kotter list a number of circumstances when people will resist change. Anyone who is trying to roll out agile methods would do well to be aware of them:

People will resist changes when any of the following feelings are present:

  • There is a sense of loss: be it security, pride or satisfaction, freedom, responsibility, authority, good working conditions, and/or status
  • The change initiative and its implications are misunderstood
  • Belief that the change does not make sense for the organization
    o Change is misdirected, current state or alternatives are better
    o It may create more problems than it is worth
    o Our extra efforts are not being rewarded
  • A low tolerance for change in our lives – perhaps there are already many changes at home
  • When change violates a principle or commitment that the organization must stand by – for instance customer service or quality
  • If there is a lack of respect for those initiating the change
  • When people are excluded from the change initiative – this a great way to generate resistance
  • Changes viewed as criticism of how things were done in the past – “You are so bad at development we are going to have to adopt agile methods!”
  • The change effort occurs at a bad time, other issues or problems are also being handled – for example just before a company take over

Levels of Resistance
When people oppose change their resistance tends to fall into three categories:

Level 1 Resistance – Confusion (lack of Information)
Level 1 resistance is the least severe and usually caused by confusion and a lack of information. We can tackle this by providing information in the form of newsletters, lunch and learns, discussion forums, websites, etc and providing plenty of opportunities for feedback.

Level 2 Resistance – Resistance to Change (fear of loss)
Level 2 resistance is more difficult to overcome because it is directed at the change itself and usually stems from a fear of loss of something valued. To tackle this we need to:
• Build strong working relationships with those creating the resistance
• Embrace the resistance and get them on board as the official skeptic
• Listen with an open mind and provide acknowledgement
• Stay calm to stay engaged, maintain a clear focus

Level 3 – Entrenched Resistance (beyond the changes at hand)
Level 3 resistance is the hardest to overcome because now it’s personal! Level 3 resistance has little to do with the change at hand and more to do with the people behind the change, old personal agendas, vendettas, etc. Fortunately level 3 resistance is quite rare, but if you run into it then be prepared for a long struggle. To help overcome it
• Continually work on building relationships
• Begin small – find things you can agree on and work from there
• Candid conversation is vital  - confront the issues
• Get people deeply involved in changes that affect them
• Support yourself, and be prepared for setbacks – you will not be able to convert everyone, look after your health.

Mistake # 12: Expecting everyone to play nice.

Well this all seems doom and gloom. If people resist change under these circumstances and to these varying degrees just when do they accept change? Fortunately there are many circumstances where people are supportive of change and by knowing about them we can try to ensure they are present and stack the deck in our favour.

Triggers for Change Acceptance
People will accept changes when the following feelings are present:

• When the change is seen as a personal gain: in security, money, authority, status or prestige, responsibility, working conditions, achievement

• Provides a new challenge and reduces boredom – when we create more interesting work

• Opportunities to influence the change initiative – when we involve people in the changes

• Timing: the time is right for organizational change

• Source of the change initiative is liked and respected

• The approach of the change and how it is implemented appeals to us – when they buy into the approach being taken

Be sure to check back for Part 3 when I will explain a joint Action and Human centred process that taps into these change accepters to create low friction changes. I will also cover institutionalizing changes so that they stick after the change agents have left and provide some tools to help people adapt to new work processes.


Binnur Al-Kazily


Thank you for a great post. I can certainly relate to the challenges of not falling into Mistake #9 & 10. Identifying the stakeholders, understanding their interests and concerns, and finding ways to resolve the differences can be challenging. In a large corporation with an established checkpoint process (such as stage-gate), stakeholders are often part of the cross-functional teams (Customer Support, Marketing, Operations, Learning Products, ...) with their own internal processes and schedules. Even without a good imagination, I think one can easily see Mistakes 11 & 12 emerging in this scenario. At the end, success is not impossible to achieve, however does require good listening, communication and negotiation techniques. I look forward to reading Part 3.

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