How Lean Change Management Helps Traditional Change Management

Learn how Lean Change Management can help traditional, plan-driven approaches to change.
November 13, 2013
Jason is the author of Lean Change Management and founder of the Lean Change Management Association and Spark the Change Toronto
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I’ve cited this study about change initiative failures and also questioned its validity and at its core, I believe the problems change management professionals and Agile coaches run into that work against change initiatives is how organizations measure performance and project-ify highly un-certain pieces of work.

Those pieces of work could be change programs, Agile transformations, Agile adoptions and other organizational changes that typically involving changing people’s habits.

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with the change management and organizational effectiveness people at a Fortune 100 company and we talked about challenges they have with managing change projects.   For starters, I was amazed at the similarities this OE team had with Agile coaching teams I’ve been part of.  Their stance is one of capability and competence development which was refreshing because I’ve seen some CM/OE groups that feel responsible for creating and pushing change plans.

I boiled down their challenges to a root cause, that while not being a solitary root cause, does contributes to the creation of most of the obstacles they face.

Running change initiatives like projects with a budget, start and end date.

Some of the issues we talked about were:

  • Stakeholders paying for the people working on the project need to justify the spend the same way they do with determining ROI on software or business improvment projects.
  • Stakeholders want to see detailed plans about the change project and most of the time the high un-certainty that comes with change either makes making a plan really hard or they end up making stuff up
  • Constant focus on outcomes, measures and ‘ensuring’ success when it’s extremely difficult to predict.  It’s not that talking about outcomes is a bad thing, but we did an overview of Lean Change Management and their objective was to ‘ensure a complete understanding of Lean Change Management’ by the end of the session.  I polled the audience after the session (and admittedly picked on the person who wrote the objective!) and the average score was 2 -3 out of 5 as far as how they felt about what they learned. Was it a failure then?

That last point leads me to the reasons why I believe a Lean approach to change is more effective.  Focusing on creating a tangible outcome makes us feel certain.  Our brains do not like un-certainty so it’s not the actual outcome or “the plan” that makes us feel certain, it’s the act of planning and the act of talking about an outcome.   Therefore, plan for smaller changes, reduce the feedback loop and involve the people affected by the change in the change itself.

One of the models I reference in Lean Change Management is SCARF by David Rock.  The “C” in SCARF represents Certainty.  When we feel un-certain about something, chemicals in our brain cause the “flight or fight” response which can explain one of the reasons why stakeholders want to see detailed plans. Chances are they are not going to read it, but they need to feel certain that a plan is in place.  It can also explain the reason that some executives react violently to the introduction of Agile practices because they may feel Agile means no planning and chaos.  They also may be used to seeing detailed plans (that they likely don’t read) and feel that Agile will prevent that from happening.

In the Agile world this is usually thrown around as a lack of trust or that people in organizations must change their culture and mindset.   Trust, culture and mindset trickle down from leaders in organizations.  A dominant leader who likes to put the hammer down will create mis-trust and a culture of control and fear.  The scary thing is, that might work in some organizations.   No amount of beating that leader with the Agile stick will improve the organization, and worse, it can be at odds with the ‘way work gets done’ which can be more damaging.

I’m not sure Lean Change Management will solve the budgeting problem.  I’m not sure Lean Change Management will solve the trust, culture and mindset problem.

I do know that adding more tools to change practitioners toolkits from Lean Change Management will help people create conditions that allow positive and meaningful change to evolve organically in organizations.  I’ve seen it happen.  I’ve seen great people in organizations leave their crappy organization for a better one.   I’ve seen people who violently oppose Agile change end up becoming the strongest supporters of it once they integrate a different approach to working into their new self.  I’ve seen a reduction in fear in people affected by change by enable more frequent and honest dialogue.

To close, the change management and organizational effectiveness, Agile, lean startup and neuroscience worlds bring multiple tools and models to help people navigate the murky waters of change.    Lean Change Management whips up a delicious cocktail of methods that, when combined, create a powerful and more effective approach to managing change.



  1. Ro Gorell

    Jason, this is a fascinating piece because it’s not unique to the situation you describe. The outcome is definitely important because that describes/contextualises the strategy. The stated outcome from the group “to ensure a complete understanding” in my world lacked specificity and was way too broad in scope for just one session! By adopting an iterative process you can see whether the actions/experiments you are taking are helping achieve your strategy. And also, whether that strategy now stands in the light of the insights you have gathered. And this can equally be applied to software and business improvement projects. In fact, business improvement projects benefit from adopting an interative approach. We used the phrase, inch wide – mile deep or mile wide – inch deep to describe scope. Scope is one of the factors why change “fails” – either because there is lack of specificity and/or because they want to change the world in a day. As we know, that might take a bit longer than a day:-) As always, your articles inspire curosity and get me thinking. Thanks

    • Jason Little

      thanks for the comment! I needed to re-read the post as it’s been a while since I wrote it! Your comment triggered something for me, which is a problem I have right now with a client: “wanting to change the world in a day”….all the while saying “we know it’ll take time”.

      Their actions aren’t matching their words. Things feel slow, so they want to do more. If I propose we do less, I’m met with a “well, why are we paying you then?” attitude….or worse a “well, what should we do? nothing???” attitude.

      This specific case feels like a spaghetti on the wall approach to me sometimes so I like your inch-wide, mile-wide, or mile-deep descriptions…I’ll try those!



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