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Leading Agile Change: Proven Change Models for Agile Transformation

An in-depth look at some different ways to ensure a great agile transformation such as AKDAR and the McKinsey 7-S method.

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Many organizations approach Agile transformations with naïve expectations. They don’t understand that training and coaching teams alone won’t be enough to ensure that their Agile initiative succeeds. Agile transformation entails changes in policies, processes, mindset and culture that will be felt throughout the organization. The key to successfully leading change that runs this deep is Organizational Change Management (OCM).

OCM helps change leaders usher in extensive operational and structural changes. Even more important, it helps leaders facilitate the human aspects of change that occur during Agile transformations.

But first let’s look in a little more depth at what Agile transformation entails.

Agile is the new normal, it has been around for over 15 years and is becoming the mainstream way of building software. Many organizations have already adopted Agile practices and many are in the process of undertaking an Agile Transformation with the goal of transitioning from a set of values and principles aligned to waterfall and sequential development to Agile values and principles. Some organizations have had trouble making this transformation stick, and we have observed that often this is because very few of these organizations used Organizational Change Management practices as part of their Agile Transformation.

An Agile Transformation typically introduces major changes in five different layers within an organization:

5-Layer Organization

At the Leadership layer, we are typically introducing new leadership styles, which de-emphasize command and control and introduce new styles like servant leadership. At the Organization layer we introduce new cultures of collaboration and new structures and behaviors that are more team-oriented as opposed to individual-based. At the Product and Business layer we introduce brand new roles such as Product Owners and introduce new ways in which the business partners with software development. At the Delivery layer we introduce new frameworks and ways of working to address Agile scaling issues and sometimes introduce specific frameworks such as the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Lastly, at the Execution layer, we introduce new team-based patterns, such as Kanban, Scrum, and Extreme Programming (XP).

Clearly we are dealing with change at much more than just the software development team level so we typically need interventions throughout the organization above and beyond the coaching and training of development teams. And because we are introducing a brand new set of values and principles to the organization that foster totally different individual and organizational behaviors, we would be well served to pay better attention to the change process and ensure the success of their change initiatives. Change professionals have been drawing from a body of knowledge and proven OCM practices and frameworks for many years to help organizations achieve success in their large-scale change initiatives.

In this blog I’ll give a brief overview of a couple of these practices and frameworks, in particular how they could be applied in an Agile transformation.


The ADKAR model by Prosci is a goal-oriented model in which five major milestones are progressed through sequentially to arrive at the desired change. (I had the pleasure of interviewing Prosci CIO Tim Creasey recently at the Association for Change Management Professionals 2016 conference. After you’re done reading this blog, click here to watch the interview.) The five milestones of ADKAR are:

  • Awareness – Before a change can occur, the individuals affected by the change need to be made aware of the need for the change. In an Agile transformation, we must ensure the entire organization is aware of the goals for why we are changing. We can do this with a well thought out communication strategy and plan.
  • Desire – Even if the organization as a whole is aware of the need for change, they may not want to make the change. In order for change to be successful, the whole organization needs to want the change. In an Agile transformation, the desire for change is articulated through the set of Agile values and practices that drive toward the organization’s goals and aspirations and will help it succeed in an increasingly uncertain marketplace. By generating a shared sense of purpose, the people in the organization can begin desiring the change.
  • Knowledge – In order for us to be successful with the change, there is a base level of new knowledge we must infuse into the organization. We can use training as a way to introduce the new level of knowledge as part of an Agile Transformation.
  • Ability – There is a minimum level of performance and capability we are expecting to see in the future state, so we need a way to measure the new ability. We can use a combination of assessments and coaching as a way to improve ability in an Agile Transformation.
  • Reinforcement – It can sometimes be easy to revert back to our old ways so we need a way to reinforce the new future state behavior to make sure the change sticks.

Kotter 8-Step Process for Leading Change

John Kotter is a professor at the Harvard Business School and he introduced his eight-step process for change in his book “Leading Change” twenty years ago:

  • Create a sense of urgency – We need to mobilize the organization to want to change. For Agile transformations we often make reference to the rate of change and the dramatic shortening of the average lifespan of companies from the Deloitte Shift Index to create that sense of urgency. If we don’t become more Agile than our competitors, we might cease to exist.
  • Build a guiding coalition – On Agile transformations we often create an Agile steering committee and/or transformation team that is tasked with executing the transformation and communicating its progress to the organization.
  • Form a strategic vision and initiatives - We often work with organizations to first set a vision and strategy for why we are trying to become Agile and then we make sure the organization is aligned to that Agile vision.
  • Enlist a volunteer army – We can do this on an Agile transformation by first demonstrating the value of Agile in a smaller context (e.g., a proof-of-concept Agile experiment). It is often the case that the individuals who partake of these experiments see the value of agility and become early adopters. These early adopters may then decide to champion the change initiative based on their own personal experiences.
  • Enable action by removing barriers – One of the key roles of the steering committee and transformation team is to remove impediments. These can be environmental, behavioral, structural and cultural. We often define an impediment backlog, which we aggressively work through removing.
  • Generate short-term wins – We often recommend having formal celebrations to highlight our accomplishments. If we break our transformation program down into iterations, we can make sure at the end of each iteration we celebrate the major achievements completed during the iteration.
  • Sustain acceleration – Even changes that are making good progress can stall. We need to make sure we are progressing through the Agile transformation at a sustainable pace. We can use concepts like a Transformation Backlog and Transformation Sprints to break the change down into a set of manageable incremental changes that can be delivered with the available organizational capacity. We also need to make sure that we are building upon the successes we’ve had with our short-term wins.  As we sustain acceleration in an Agile transformation, we start tackling the bigger issues and deal with the organizational changes necessary for an Agile transformation to achieve the vision.
  • Institute change – When the change successfully takes hold, clearly connect new improvements and results with the implemented changes. There should be a positive delta in some key areas due to the change. On an Agile Transformation we can use an Agile-minded metrics program and transparency to measure performance and also to make course corrections as needed.

McKinsey 7-S

The McKinsey 7-S model is a collection of seven independent dimensions for modeling an organization. They include:

  • Strategy – This represents the organizations plan for how it is going to deliver against its vision.
  • Structure – This represents the physical organization structures that are in existence to support the strategy.
  • Systems – This represents the processes and tools that are in place to execute the strategy.
  • Shared Values – This represents the core set of values that the whole organization is in support of.
  • Skills – The core set of skills that the employees currently possess.
  • Style – This is the way leaders work with their staff.
  • Staff – This is the current labor force in place at the organization.

If we are going to leverage the McKinsey 7-S model we need to make sure our Agile Transformation Roadmap has items on it that address all seven dimensions. Too often organizations only really address the Skills and Staff dimensions through training and coaching.

Satir Change Model

Virginia Satir was a family therapist. Her Satir Change Model is a five-stage process that was originally intended for family therapy interventions and has also been adapted for organizational change. In this model we try to form a bridge from the current state to future statue by starting at the Late Status Quo, which is essentially the current state. In an Agile Transformation this is often described as waterfall or sequential software development. We do this by first dealing with Resistance, which then devolves for a time into Chaos, but then after entering into a period of Integration we are now able to reach the New Status Quo, which in an Agile transformation would be a state that is consistent with the Agile values and principles. (Here is a much more in-depth treatment of the topic by my colleague, Steven M. Smith.)


So as you can see, there are a number of classic models and frameworks that have been used successfully in the past to deal with large organizational change initiatives. What all of these models have in common is the attention paid to the change process. Change, even for a very good reason, is nonetheless very difficult at the individual level. It is imperative to ensure good structures are in place to ensure that the exponentially more difficult organizational change achieves the goals and benefits for which the change was coordinated in the first place.

Agile transformation seems to be the most common organizational change. Companies of every size and industry do themselves a huge service by carefully and methodically implementing change like Agile transformation using a proven change model like those mentioned here. It is for this reason that change management is built into SolutionsIQ’s Agile Transformation Solution.

In my next post, I’ll write on how these models are a great place to start, but need to be adapted to align better with Agile values like collaboration, transparency and rapid feedback.


  • Brown, John Seely,  Hagel III, John, Kulasooriya Duleesha.  (2011).  The 2011 Shift Index – Measuring the forces of long term change.  Deloitte Center for the Edge.
  • Hiatt, Jeffrey M (2006).  ADKAR A Model for Change in Business and Government and our Community.Prosci Learning Center Publications.
  • Kotter, John P. (1996). Leading Change. Harvard Business School Press.
  • Satir V; Baldwin M (1983). Satir Step by Step: A Guide to Creating Change in Families. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books.
  • Waterman, Robert H., Peters, Thomas J., Phillips, Julien R.  (1980).  Structure is Not Organization. Business Horizons.

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