When to launch a change initiative

Now later

I’ve been mulling over this question from Steve Smith:

@AgileSteveSmith: @joshuajames Do you know of any resources on when change initiatives are bestlaunched? E.g. After a big failure, new CxO etc. Cheers

The trite answer, the one that first popped into my head?


Basically, I’m not sure that waiting for some trigger to launch will improve the chances of the change being a successful one. You yourself need to be the catalyst, so don’t wait. Much of what needs to change is actually already within the gift of people close to the work. Even when it isn’t, I believe you have to be the change you want to see. In some cases, that might mean asking for forgiveness after you’ve already made the change. Alternatively, if you run it (and sell it, if necessary) as a small, easily reversible experiment, then you’re more likely to get the green light to change stuff. The best time to do this? Yesterday. Don’t wait for someone to give you authority or bless your decision. As soon as you know that something needs to change you are responsible — if you choose to be.

The second answer, from a more cynical corner of my personality:


It may not be what Steve was suggesting, but “launch” makes it sound like something big is going to happen. Someone (I can’t remember who) once told me that the fastest way to kill a change initiative is to give it a name. I have seen first-hand how a label like “Lean I.T.”, “scrum” or “agile” or something similar can quickly grow beyond your control. False perceptions* can take root and take up a lot of time and effort managing the message, controlling and clarifying the use of words — rather than helping people and teams change the way they work.

So, if you could possibly launch an
“un-initiative” (without a name), I’d take that approach. Toyota didn’t have a “Lean” initiative (the name came later, by others) and there are plenty of organisations who were “agile” long before 2001.

The best way to do this is to get hired as CTO or CIO, and be the change. This requires charisma and leadership (of the form where people actually follow you).

You may not see that opportunity now, but, trust me: you are currently in training for that very role. I was talking with @christopheraver recently at a conference about how to deal with pointy-haired bosses who don’t really get the need to work differently. His view? Encourage them to either change, or retire. Get out of the way: so the next generation of leaders can step up and show them how. This might be career limiting in the short-term, but if you can’t change where you work, perhaps you need to change where you work. Even if we don’t though — before long the next generation will be in their shoes.

I long for the day when “agile transformation” of our organisations is no longer necessary. Kids born today will find it weird that we ever had “landlines”, let’s hope that Agile Transformation goes the way of VHS.

Of course, I realise that you didn’t actually ask my opinion — you were looking for resources. I haven’t read that much on this, and I feel that context and culture is so variable that reading probably won’t help much. (I’m an Engineer: we apply science, maths and ingenuity).

Having said that, Michael Sahota has a good book on the subject, and it is specifically about “Agile” transformations. If you want to go down to first principles about organisations, culture and especially “transformational leadership” then Edgar H Schein is the name you want to be looking up.

Good luck!

  • One amusing story about about false perceptions, was when an initiative based on a set of simple practices designed to fit all systems somehow became strongly associated with legacy systems. We had started with the slowest and most dependent systems first and had delivered results most believed were impossible before we started. We became victims of our own success though as the perception took root that it would only work with small, incremental change and only with well-established pipelines. Despite wider industry experience of using these same practices on predominantly new projects and greenfield development, the perception became the exact opposite in this organisation. It was very weird for those of us with experience of the outside world.