Resistance to change in organizations is neither a new phenomenon, nor unique to agile transformations. It’s also inevitable—when you introduce any major change to an organization, you’re bound to get pushback from some people.
However, agile transformations are particularly challenging because they require a mindset shift, not just following a methodology. Agile coaches must encourage people to change not only how they work, but also to change the way they think about their work. It’s a difficult transition, often made more so by organizational factors that must be mitigated against.
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According to a 2016 study published by Computers in Human Behavior*, these are the five key factors that contribute to resistance to change in organizations:
No agile transformation can succeed if the participants are unclear on what they’re doing and why. Too often, education efforts begin and end with a couple days of agile behavioral training, but do not impart a deep understanding of the mindsets, values and underlying principles. When people don’t understand why a particular agile practice is necessary, the results can be unpredictable and ineffective.
For example, if a team doesn’t understand the purpose of a Daily Scrum, they often revert to a status-report format to the senior-most person in the room—and they don’t reap the benefits of working together to adapt and adjust their plan to achieve the Sprint Goal.
Lack of knowledge leads to misunderstanding, miscommunication, unrealistic expectations and—unsurprisingly—low morale. It’s uncomfortable not to know or understand what you’re supposed to do, and that discomfort leads people to resist the transformation
Cultural issues were cited by every study participant as a major impediment to agile transformation.
Organizations that have a history of “traditional project management” practices tend to have a host of cultural values that incentivize people to resist agile transformation. Lack of trust, devaluing collaboration, and command-and-control thinking undermine agile transformation. This is why agile transformations must also involve organizational reset to bring the organization’s values and culture in line with agile values, principles, and practices.
Some people resist agile transformations simply because they don’t like change. Mike Cohn, one of the founders of the Scrum Alliance, calls these people “conservers.” These people prefer predictability, tradition, and established practices, even if the status quo is not as effective as it could be. In many cases, people involved in transformation may fear that the change endangers their positions, privilege, and power. It’s hard to embrace a change if you worry that it will result in the elimination of your job.
There’s a physiological factor at work, as well: Under stress, the brain reverts to old, well-established neurological pathways that support old habits and patterns of behavior. In other words, old habits die hard. Agile transformations require time and patience to be effective.
Managers and employees have different reactions to transformation. While employees are more likely to resist because they lack knowledge about the transformation or fear the unknown, managers most often cite their loss of control and authority as a reason to resist change.
In addition to a command-and-control mindset, some workers prefer to have a controlling leader, so that they don’t have to worry about making a decision that leads to failure. This goes back to the cultural issues cited above: the organization must adjust its culture to value experimentation and the ability to learn from failure. People must understand that avoiding failure is not the goal, but to learn from failure and adapt to what they’ve learned.
Many people have little or no experience with open communication, collaboration, and success with working in groups. That may be due to hierarchical structures in the organization, or that teams are distributed rather than co-located. Often, people find security in being able to blame another person, team or function, rather than accepting accountability and working with others. Working with others can feel uncomfortable, especially for introverts, and it doesn’t come naturally for some people. Many people default to avoiding it, unless they have an agile coach to help everyone learn how to collaborate effectively.
While they are listed as distinct reasons, each feeds on—and is fed—by others. There’s no “single” problem to overcome. Rather, the whole ecosystem must be explored and worked with. Understanding the primary factors that lead to resistance can help organizations address the core issues and make progress in overcoming the resistance.
Wondering if your organization is ready to take the plunge into agile transformation? Check out our list of 10 questions to ask before adopting agile.
*Gandomani, Taghi Javdani, and Mina Ziaei Nafchi. “Agile transition and adoption human-Related challenges and issues: A Grounded Theory approach.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 62, Sept. 2016, pp. 257-266.
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