Adopting Agile Means Accepting Change: What to Do?
Transitions to agile are as much about introducing new ideas as teaching new techniques. This is a problem with which innovators and entrepreneurs struggle. In "How Do You Explain A New Product Category?," Stanford business-school researchers explain how to address the challenge that “innovations that are totally new to the market are often extremely difficult to describe.”
When talking about an innovation, the temptation is to compare the new thing to something people already understand. For example, it’s common to explain agile in terms of how it differs from waterfall. The authors of the Stanford piece point out that “truly innovative products are often the ones that bring ideas across categorical boundaries. But doing so creates potential confusion, and people devalue what confuses them.”
The article concludes by saying that “the solution, difficult as it may seem, is to adopt a crisp identity instead.” So perhaps it’s best to underplay the comparisons and focus on how agile stands in its own category.
In the Harvard Business Review (HBR) blog, "Make Your Innovative Idea Seem Less Terrifying," Whitney Johnson points out that “new ideas tend to evoke fear and anger—we are programmed to prefer the comfort and safety of established norms.” This may not be news to you if you are familiar with the Satir Change Model.
One of the reasons that people resist agile is that by introducing a new process, team members have to handle both the changing dynamics of the development process and the lack of understanding of what happens when things don’t work out as planned. Johnson goes on to explain that “your ability to persuade is tightly linked to your ability to assuage fear.”
Many agile practices help build a framework that focuses on improvement, not blame, which in turn helps create a safe environment for change. The challenge is often to help people trust that the safety is real.
The article "The 5 Common Characteristics of Ideas That Spread" makes some of the same points. The five factors—relative advantage, compatibility, complexity or simplicity, trialability, and observability—map closely to the key points made in both the HBR and the Stanford Business School articles. For ideas to spread, people need to understand the benefits and feel that they are not taking a huge risk.
Adopting agile means change. And change is hard. But if your current process isn’t working as well as you’d like, you may need to change. The challenge is to explain the value of agile in a way that helps people open up to new ideas.
What strategies have you used to introduce new ideas? Which ones worked and which ones failed?