Introducing change is never easy.  People are accustomed to the way they work, even if there could be more productive ways to do things.  The deeply ingrained habits and processes in companies can lead to major resistance when attempting to implement change, especially when that change is focused on the values and principles of Agile.

In general, the idea of self-organizing teams, iterative delivery, responding to change, and other agile ways of working are typically foreign to people who are used to working in traditional environments. An agile approach requires a whole new mindset that many struggle to grasp and accept.

When changes are first proposed, confusion and skepticism abound. Common reactions range from “this seems unnecessary” to outright rejection of new ways of working. There is often a lack of trust in the different techniques and a fear of the unknown.  This is human nature.

This hesitance is understandable – change is always unsettling. But overcoming inherent resistance is crucial to successfully adopting change. Here are a few strategies that can help:

  1. Start small – Introduce changes in bite-sized pieces rather than all at once. Incremental steps reduce anxiety.
  2. Communicate constantly – Clearly explain the rationale for each change. Increased transparency builds understanding.
  3. Involve everyone – Get input from all employees and incorporate their feedback. Collaboration creates buy-in.
  4. Allow time – A sizable culture shift will not happen overnight. Prepare for a lengthy journey.
  5. Stay flexible – Be ready to adapt based on learnings rather than clinging to a set plan.
  6. Celebrate wins – Recognize any progress made, no matter how minor. This positive reinforcement creates momentum.

Transitioning from traditional processes to agile ways of working takes patience and persistence. But by understanding people’s ingrained beliefs and fears, change can be introduced gradually in a way that eases uncertainty.

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Ryan Maddigan, a Clinical Psychologist and the founder of the Boston Child Study Center. I asked him if he had some time to discuss a difficult topic: change. I wanted to learn how a Clinical Psychologist talks to patients about change and see if I could learn how to be better at my job as an Agile Coach.

The interview lasted for 40 minutes and it was incredible to learn how our bodies and minds react to change, even when the change is good.  I’d like to share one part from the interview in the hope that it helps you with your own change event. 

Change Happens

Let’s start at the beginning. When a change happens, it brings up uncertainty. We don’t know what it is nor do we know what this change will do to us, so it triggers our fight or flight response in our amygdala. 

The amygdala is a small, almond-shaped structure in the brain that’s part of the limbic system. It’s responsible for emotions, motivation, and fear, and is closely linked to aggression and species-specific defense. The amygdala also plays a role in forming and retrieving memories related to fear and emotions.

Remember, this is how our brain works, so even if the change is positive, our brain still needs to decide what to do. What if there was a way to de-escalate the brain’s perceived threat before it even happens?

Validate the Change

What I learned from Dr. Maddigan is that before you introduce a change, you should start by validating people’s fears ahead of time. Name their fears. 

Explain that there is going to be some uncertainty as we try this new thing and you may feel a variety of emotions when thinking about it. When you explain this in advance, people will know that it is a normal feeling they are experiencing and therefore, the emotion won’t feel as powerful when it is felt.

Understand Emotions

After you explain the uncertainty, you need to be aware of the emotions that can be felt and how they interact with one another. Four common emotions arise when people are introduced to change:

  1. Fear – If the person is afraid of the change they will tend to avoid the threat and they will generate resistance.
  2. Sadness – The person may feel sad because they feel that they may be losing something meaningful or important to them.
  3. Anger – The person may feel angry and will resist and/or defend what is important to them.
  4. Shame – The person may feel shame because they may be unaware that there was even a problem with the current way things were working.

Each emotion needs to be understood and you can start by asking questions like, “Tell me why this won’t work?” or “What are you worried might happen?” and then use their own words to understand their perspective. You need to validate their fear and why they may feel that this change won’t work. If needed, you can use a Force Field analysis to help elicit the pro’s and con’s and determine how strong each of these forces really are.

Understanding where the other person is coming from will help you explain their defensiveness. If you can explain to the person both why their defensiveness makes sense and why this new change could work, you will both be back on the same team. You need their skills to make this a success.

Remember, change is hard. Dr. Maddigan said that in working with some of his patients, he often reminds himself that “Unsolicited advice is criticism in disguise”. Be careful.  Change implies something is wrong and people can, and do, take it personally.