“Hi Jason, we’re looking for a <change agent, agile coach, consultant> to help with our agile transformation. I wanted to setup a time for you to come in and chat with my VP about it.”, said Biff.

I replied with, “Thanks for reaching out! Tell me a bit more about this transformation. When did you ‘start’? What have you done so far? What’s been the toughest challenge?”

“We’ve been doing it on our own for a year or so and getting some traction, leadership is completely bought in, but some of the people on the teams are resisting.”, said Biff.

I’ve been helping organizations change for over a decade and, more or less, every gig has started with a conversation like this. For the purposes of this post, let’s assume there is a compelling reason for this change, although, from my experience, there rarely is because different people will always have different perceptions of the ‘urgency’ for change. If I were to travel down a side road for a second, I’d tell you that urgency for change is a dead concept anyway, and focusing on the cause and purpose is a much more likely way to energize people.

Change readiness isn’t a new concept. It’s been a foundation of the change community for as long as I can remember and in today’s world, there are more effective ways to find out who’s ready, who’s not, and how to move forward knowing that there is a 0% chance everyone is aligned around the change in the same way at the same time.

The conversation I started this post with could have easily been had in any of the organizations I’ve worked in. For this post, I’ll focus on a large financial organization that decided to go agile. The expectation was to work at the team and program level to see if agile could work. That was interesting for me because most organizations explicitly say they’re transforming, everyone is bought in, they’re going full brainwashing, er, mindset shift and the leaders are fully supportive.

I was asked to helped a program team transition their initiative to agile. My rules were simple:

  • the highest stakeholder from the business and IT need to be in the room for the first 30 minutes of the liftoff
  • the entire team needs to be present for the whole thing
  • by the end of the 2 day liftoff we’ll have a working agreement, and rough backlog created

I was selling this approach as zero to ready in 2 days because let’s face it, no one really cares how agile we are, we all want to get shit done.

After going through the liftoff activities, it was time to see if they were ready. I asked the group to draw this diagram on a sticky note:

Then I asked them to place an ‘X’ on the sticky note based on where they would assess themselves. This is the resulting diagram:

What would this tell you about this teams’ readiness to change?

Long story short, this team took immediate ownership of the change and it had nothing to do with a method, framework, or an agile operating model. It came down to sense-making and conversations. They knew I was there to help, and I knew they were ready.

After their first sprint (they chose a Scrum-like process), they asked me to observe their ceremonies (planning, backlog refinement, review, and retrospective) but they didn’t want any advice. They wanted me to watch and take notes to give them feedback afterward.

They were ready, they took ownership, and they simply nailed it.

In the same organization, I applied the same technique to another team. When it came time to create their readiness diagram they put all of the stickies in the middle of the chart.

I said, “you guys did that pretty quickly, and since everything is in the middle, I’d say you either didn’t really think about it, or this isn’t a good time to do this change

After an awkward pause, someone spoke up: “yeah, we have a hard deadline, with fixed scope and we just need to deliver

I said, “sounds good if you need my help, ask. I’ll go back to your overlords and tell them I can’t help because this is a bad time to introduce the change. Odds are one of you are going to get yelled at, but consider this your ‘get out of jail free’ card. Just blame me.

I’ve told this story in my workshops over the last number of years and there are always questions like: “but we HAVE TO do this change!!!!

No, you don’t. Every change comes with a choice, it’s your responsibility as an agent of change to unpack the ask behind the change and facilitate a meaningful conversation about it.

People change when they’re ready and you can’t force it.

This month’s Lean Change Management Association theme is change readiness, but not the change readiness through templates and surveys you might be used to from the traditional change world. Throughout November, we’ll be sharing stories of how to be more creative with your change readiness assessment. I say creative because I am hesitating to call them agile change readiness assessments! Although, this post might get more views if I did.

Join the Lean Change Management Association and get access to these stories, a lean coffee session where you can ask us more questions, as well as access to a global community of change practitioners!

Jason Little
Author, Lean Change Management at Leanintuit
I began my career as a web developer when Cold Fusion roamed the earth. Over the following years, I moved into management, Agile Coaching and consulting. The bumps and bruises I collected along the way helped me realize that helping organizations adopt Agile practices was less about the practices, and all about change.
In 2008 I attended an experiential learning conference (AYE) about how people experience change and since then, I’ve been writing, and speaking, all over the world about helping organizations discover more effective practices for managing organizational change.