‘Agile’ is now common place now in many organisations. Over the last five years I’ve also seen a lot of change projects describe themselves as using ‘agile’ methodology, but I’m not so sure they were…I suspect there is a lot of liberty being taken! It’s now meant that many in project management, change management and communication roles risk facing irrelevance if they are not familiar with the what it is about.

The Agile Manifesto can be summarised with four principles

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.


I asked Jenny Vandyke explain what Agile looks like from a change management perspective. Jenny has worked several bona fide Agile change projects and is author of the The Innovation Recipe: Key ingredients for world-class results in big business.

In this piece she uses the cooking metaphor to explain the differences between traditional project methodology (also known as waterfall) and Agile.  As an aside, Jenny’s book is great – I’ll be coming back later with an interview to share more with you!

Dishing up change one bite at a time

There is no doubt that agility is a huge competitive advantage.  It’s frustrating when major corporate change programs take two or more years to implement, and business strategy, environmental conditions and available technologies have all shifted in the mean time.

Traditionally, change programs have been delivered in one ‘big bang’ like the traditional roast dinner – hard work to prepare and slow to cook, but the end result has all the trimmings and won’t leave you hungry. More recently, a ‘bit by bit’, tapas of tasting plates has become popular, also known as Iterative or Agile delivery. For an explanation of these two menu options, you can take a look at my Big Bang versus Bit by Bit cheat sheet.

Traditional, Waterfall, Big Bang delivery is suited to complex or high risk change programs and risk averse, conservative or complex businesses.  There’s more time to prepare for the change, and fewer surprises along the way.  Bit by Bit or Agile delivery is great for getting a change delivered quickly, then progressively adding new bells and whistles to make your solution even better.

Key ingredients for success

The key ingredients for success are exactly the same on Waterfall or Agile projects.  Either way, it’s still key to:

  • be clear on your project objectives and requirements
  • have strong sponsorship and change leadership
  • manage risks
  • maintain active feedback loops and robust testing
  • communicate effectively to manage your impact on staff and customers.

The key ingredients are the same but the cooking methods are often different.  In Agile there is less formal documentation and more informal conversations.  There is also substantially more stakeholder engagement required on Agile projects.  A 300 percent increase in stakeholder engagement requirements is not uncommon, including multiple half day or full day stakeholder workshops.  From a stakeholder’s perspective, the good news is they don’t need to read a 200 page requirements document written in tech-speak.  It’s much easier to get a feel for what a system will be like by sitting in a workshop experiencing a live demonstration of the latest prototype.

Maintaining enthusiasm for the change program tends to be easier as you get runs on the board along the way.  It’s really important, though, to manage expectations.  If your stakeholders are used to waterfall projects they may expect all the bells and whistles to be delivered in the first release, which goes against the Agile philosophy.

The role of the Change Manager in an Agile project

It’s critical for Change Managers to have a seat at the table when setting the delivery approach on an Agile project.  The sizing and timing of each Agile release needs to consider not just the technical development complexity and lead times, but also the magnitude of impact on staff and customers.  I’ve seen one change on one screen of a system impact 100 business processes and 40 teams.  A small technical change doesn’t always equate to a small impact.

Conversely, it’s important to be sure that each release delivers value to impacted businesses.  I worked with a client recently who had to move their application to a new back end platform – the system looked exactly the same but was on a new, future-proofed platform.  Now, they could have made the new application an exact replica, but they took the opportunity to make a few small tweaks that added real value to staff and customers at the same time.

Working on an Agile project takes a different style to Waterfall.  Flexibility, and effective communication are critical.  Within Agile’s tight turnaround times, everything becomes critical path, with little time for contingency.  You need to be really clear and focussed on those activities most critical to success, because the odds are you won’t have time or bandwidth to do everything you’d like to do.

Having an experienced change team is critical on Agile projects.  Things move more quickly so there is less room for error, and less time to develop solutions.  There is less time to learn on the job.  There is less bandwidth to learn from mistakes.  When selecting a change manager for an Agile project, deep change management expertise is far more important than prior Agile experience.

I’m seeing some really exciting projects get off the ground and deliver quick results using Agile principles.  However, it’s not enough to compress a Waterfall timeline into Agile releases.  You’ll need to ramp up your stakeholder engagement, bullet proof your decision making and recruit a seasoned team of project professionals if you want your Agile project to deliver on the promise.


Jenny Vandyke is an innovation consultant and the author of The Innovation Recipe: Key ingredients for world-class results in big business.  She helps business leaders turn great ideas in to great results through Zumbara Consulting, based in Melbourne.  Jenny developed her six-step Innovation Recipe based on more than 10 years senior level experience on major projects at Australia’s largest companies, including National Australia Bank, BHP Billiton and KPMG.  Over the years she has presented hundreds of workshops and keynotes, including a keynote at the 2013 Australian Innovation Festival.  Zumbara is Spanish for buzz, and Jenny gets businesses buzzing.


Follow Me

Conversations of Change holds a decade’s worth of discussion, innovation, and information about the practice of change. Return as often as you like to dig around for some handy nuggets and invaluable change insights. 

I’ve really enjoyed everything about Conversations of Change, and am both grateful and proud of the work that was done on this little site. 

My focus over the last few years has been on change leadership, culminating on the launch of www.drjenfrahm.com a couple of years ago, and that’s where you’ll find all my new posts, podcasts, and insights on anything to do with change.

Follow the new Dr Jen Frahm page on Linkedin and Facebook, and subscribe to Change Leader Insights email for continued posts on change, transformation and leadership, and information on how to subscribe to my podcast.