It’s a set of questions I get asked all too often.  “What are the essential skills that someone needs to have to support change?”  This is almost always followed with, “Where can they go to get them?”  I’ll quickly acknowledge that I have an answer to this in the form of The Confident Change Management course and delve more broadly into why my answer may or may not be right, and why it is so difficult for anyone to answer.


Before I can explain the skills someone needs, I must also address the challenge that exists when there are certifications in the market.  A certification is supposed to simply say that someone has met a standard.  However, the question becomes what standard?  In the case of the CCMP, it’s “The Standard” as defined by ACMP; but in other markets, it is different things.

The next question is whether the standard is relevant to the job performance.  In the 1990s, Novell and Microsoft were criticized for having “paper” CNEs and MCSEs, respectively.  (I’ve intentionally not expanded the acronyms because they don’t matter.)  Bootcamps had formed, and people were walking in with no experience and walking out with a certification.  These bootcamps were teaching for the test but not for the knowledge that someone needed to be effective at their job.  The result was that the market decided you had to have the certification and experience.

Embedded into this is the problem that hiring managers must be able to use the certification as an indicator that you’ll be able to do the job, task, or role they want to hire you for.  When there’s no match between the skills and the job, the certification has no value.

Selecting the Skills

“The Standard” for change management isn’t about skills at all.  It’s about inputs, outputs, and processes.  So, any discussion of selecting skills isn’t informed by looking to ACMP’s “The Standard.”  Frustratingly, CMI’s Body of Knowledge has devolved into a single-vendor training program and a book that no longer holds the body of knowledge moniker.  (The book is The Effective Change Manager: The Change Management Body of Knowledge.)  The problem is that this book doesn’t define a set of essential skills for the new practitioner, it defines a semi-exhaustive list of things that might be useful to a change practitioner.

We’re left, then, on our own to identify what skills are essential for a beginning change manager to know to be successful.  They can’t know or learn everything all at once.  At the same time, they need to know enough to be successful with a moderately complex project or as a part of a larger project with a more experienced lead.

Candidate Skills

In the development of The Confident Change Management course, I found several broad skills that I felt were important.  Things like communications planning and execution, the fundamentals of project management, familiarity with a few change management models, and stakeholder management or engagement.

This was a good start but, without defining specific skills and techniques that could be used, there would be no value.  As a result, I pushed deeper to convert the broad skills like communication execution into specific things, like writing inverted pyramid, leveraging Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, and writing teasers as key things that I felt like everyone working in change should know.  By identifying specific, measurable techniques, I could teach people the basics of change management without having to worry about being exhaustive.

I don’t believe that I got the skills set exactly right for everything – but at the same time, I think it’s close.  Maybe you can let me know what you think the syllabus is missing, and we can work together to identify all the skills necessary for someone who is just starting as a change manager.

If I simply say, “The staff is bad,” you have no context for the statement.  Depending on your frame of mind, you may believe that I’m speaking about the employees of an organization.  If you’ve recently been on a long walk or hike, you may sense that I’m speaking about a stick used for walking.  In either case, you’ve used your own perspective and experience to fill in the gaps where I failed to be explicit.

The problem with this is when we’re changing organizations, we have no way of knowing what context people are approaching our communications from.  We can’t assume that they’re encountering our messages with the right frame of mind, which is why we need to provide some context for our communications and for the need for the change in the first place.

Start with Why

Simon Sinek’s popular book, Start with Why, implores us to explain why we’re doing things before we explain what we’re asking for or how we’re asking for it to be done.  This is solid advice, as anyone who has met a toddler knows that “Why?” is their favorite question.  Even adult learning theory acknowledges the need for adults to know why what they’re learning is important to them.

Too often, organizations fear that sharing the challenges of the current market will scare employees too much, and they therefore minimize the real threats to the organization’s long-term viability in favor of creating the appearance of a shimmering future.


The problem with a disconnected vision is that it often appears to employees – and outsiders – as a mirage.  It’s too hard to believe that it’s real without the framework for why the vision is possible and at least some of the major milestones that need to happen between the current state and the future state.

John F. Kennedy’s address to the United States Congress imploring everyone to make sending a man to the Moon – and returning them safely home – a reality is often heralded as the quintessential vision.  It escapes the risk of being perceived as a mirage, because everyone in Congress and the entire American public knew of the progress that had already been made with the space program.  While the trip to the Moon was a fantastic scientific and technological leap, it seemed possible because of the hard work that had already been done and the successes that had already been seen.

Communicating Context

Effective communications about change explains the current situation honestly, including both strengths and weaknesses.  It evaluates opportunities for the organization to grow and considers the threats to long-term survival.  (See SWOT & Pestle for more.)  Communicating completely builds trust and enables people to believe in the proposed vision.

The vision must then be built on the context of the organization and the environment and must seem possible based on what is known now – or can be known through effort.  Providing the contextual pieces that make the vision the one that those doing the planning believe is the best option makes it easier for everyone to buy into the believability of the vision.

With context in place, fewer people will resist, and more will engage in creating the vision even if the path from the current situation is difficult and dangerous.

There’s something about the idea of a curse that harkens back to a time of mystery.  It calls back to a time when we didn’t understand much about the world, and everything was magical.  Lurking deep in the idea of the curse is that someone might be able to influence your luck and therefore doom you.  Knowledge, on the other hand, is a prized asset, something that can be held in the minds of people and, in some cases, recorded into ways that others can use it.  Together, the curse of knowledge is something that we should fear – but too often, we aren’t aware and therefore don’t.

In leadership and change, the curse of knowledge is all about what we know and the expectation that others know it as well.  At some level, we’re aware that we need to educate the organization about the change.  We need to explain why, where we are today, and where we want to go to.  We need to explain the high level of how, what changes are being made at a high level to accommodate the change.

You’re Soaking in It

The problem is that we often attempt to deliver these messages all at once.  We expect that the process we went through to reach these insights and proposals aren’t necessary for others to go through.  We assume that they can accept radical reorganization of their worldviews without the benefit of time to process and accept the information.

To us, these changes didn’t occur in a flash of inspiration – even if it felt like it.  They came through the continual soaking in the idea of the current state and the market forces that might erode the base from our current state.

There’s an old Palmolive commercial series where women are getting manicures for their “dishpan hands.”  The technician is telling them about a new dish soap that doesn’t leave hands as dry, and the client asks about it.  The answer is “you’re soaking in it.”  The beauty of this commercial is that we often find ourselves in situations and we fail to fully realize it.

Compression Without Loss

The organization cannot afford for everyone to go through the processes that led to the need to change.  Reaching the detailed agreement on every aspect and in every way wouldn’t be effective.  We must find a way to compress the experience and package it in a way that doesn’t lose anything important.

Computer compression is a wonderful thing that promises reduced transfer times or reduced storage.  The idea is that you can faithfully reproduce something with less space by using mathematical algorithms and structures.  It’s effectively what we’re trying to do when we’re compressing the journey of discovery to the change for others.  Computer-based compression is limited to about 2x on average.  However, when we shift from an exact reproduction to an approximation, the average compression jumps.

This is the way we compress images.  By agreeing to the degree of loss of detail that we’re willing to accept, we can make images smaller.  The higher the quality, the more time and space it will take.  The decision shifts from whether to share a picture to how to share it in a way that is effective.

Stripping the Non-Essential Bits

In sharing the planned change journey, we must find a way to share the essential bits and remove anything that’s not essential.  We can do this best when we’re willing to test our messages on others who have not been involved with the change process.  Small pilot groups or trusted friends can provide the feedback we need to know what parts of the change message we must keep – and those we can part with.

Because of the curse of knowledge, we must rely on others to help us tune the message, or we’ll fall subject to the curse and doom ourselves to failing.

Daryl Conner started the analogy.  It was in relation to a literal burning oil platform off the north coast of Scotland, but it’s been misunderstood, misused, and driven to extents that weren’t intended.  However, fundamentally, making it impossible for things to stay the same is a time-honored strategy to force change to happen.

Burn the Boats

Legend has it that, in 1519, Hernán Cortés landed in what is now Mexico and ordered his men to burn the boats so that they wouldn’t be tempted to try to return home.  (There is some question about whether they burned the boats or simply ran them ashore.)  This is perhaps the first recorded situation of someone ensuring that they wouldn’t be going back on their change.  Obviously, this isn’t the gentle, friendly, persuasion approach to ensuring change – but it is one way to ensure they didn’t go back.

Sometimes drastic times call for drastic measures.  While it isn’t typically necessary to take such drastic actions in the changes that we make today, sometimes it’s useful to create some barriers to going back.


Literally, the reference to the burning platform was based on a man who jumped from certain death on the platform to possible death in the seas below.  In that situation, the decision was appropriate, because staying on the burning platform wasn’t viable.  However, that doesn’t mean that every change should involve a burning platform – literally or figuratively.

While fear is a powerful motivator, it’s also an unpredictable one that has the frustrating possibility of freezing people where they are instead of motivating them to change.  As a result, it’s important to mitigate the amount and kind of fear that’s used to motivate people towards change.

Lighting the Truth

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t honestly let people know if their current situation isn’t sustainable – that their platform is burning.  However, it does mean you should pause before lighting the platform on fire.  You want to expose the risks of staying the same without igniting fear in the minds of everyone to the degree that they’re immobilized.

Deepwater Horizon

The name of the drilling platform that resulted in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was Deepwater Horizon.  The ultradeep platform didn’t simply catch fire while drilling, it exploded, killing 11 men and starting the largest marine oil spill in history.  While the platform was not intentionally destroyed, the platform was operating with risks that ultimately led to the tragedy.

In addition to the tragic results, there were long-term changes in regulation, monitoring, and safety of deep well drilling – and some more aggressive limitations.  The report on the incident was nearly 400 pages and wasn’t complete until over 9 months after the accident.

The Challenge

The real challenge of burning platforms is that they’re unpredictable.  In your change effort, you neither need nor should ignite one.  If you’re standing on a burning platform, you should share that knowledge as clearly as possible to others without trying to accelerate the burning.  Instead of focusing on the burning platform itself, you should be focusing your change efforts on the hospitability of the alternatives.

If you’re leaving the platform for a pleasure cruise, there’s no contest.  If you’re leaving it for cold, hypothermia-inducing, shark-infested waters, no amount of burning platform is going to make you desire the change; you’re only going to be willing to jump because you have no alternatives.

So, while it’s possible to speak of burning platforms in your change effort, you’re more likely to get results if you can make the alternative more appealing.

The role of the change manager isn’t always as clear cut as we might like.  In smaller initiatives or organizations, we’re a one-man band.  In larger initiatives and organizations, we’re a conductor – or a member of a jazz ensemble.  Here’s how to navigate those waters.

[Disclaimer: I abhor that the English language uses the male noun to mean refer to both men and women with an inference towards male only.  Often, I will intentionally switch pronouns between male and female.  However, I rarely switch from, for example, fireman to fireperson, because it’s awkward for the reader.  In cases where is an alternative is available, such as policeman to police officer, I will use those.  There is no suitable replacement for “one-man band.”  I ask that my readers accept that I’m not intending to minimize the powerful women who fill this role.]

The One-Man Band

One of the impressive things about the change managers is their ability to adapt and reach into related areas of expertise to fill essential gaps.  In smaller organizations, change managers must provide communications expertise and training support.

Instead of working with a dedicated communications team, the change manager is required to develop communications plans and sketch, if not write, the communications themselves.  While this is a skill set that every change manager should possess, it’s equally a skill for which there are dedicated professionals.

There are entire professions around learning and development.  However, when they don’t exist in your organization or they’re too busy with other initiatives, it becomes incumbent on the change management professional to step up and design training and productivity aids that support the successful changes the organization desires.

Of course, project management is a key skill that keeps the project aspects of the change running smoothly as well.  Effective change managers often adapt into providing project management services for small-scale projects where a dedicated project manager isn’t available.

Changes need certain elements to be successful.  If they don’t exist, the adaptable change manager may find that they have to create them.  The opposite end of the spectrum comes when there’s a larger organization and a larger, better-funded project.

The Conductor

When there is an internal communications team, training and development team, and project management team, the role of the change manager changes from one-man band to that of conductor.  A conductor doesn’t play all the instruments in the symphony.  Nor is the conductor the best player of any one instrument in the symphony.  Their power comes from their ability to help the symphony members coordinate and work together effectively.

Instead of being tasked with the developing the communications plan or the individual communications, an effective change manger facilitates these into the larger set of activities happening in the change.  Project managers are able to manage the day-to-day tracking of progress, freeing the change manager to look for how stakeholders aren’t being supported sufficiently with the planned activities and artifacts.

In the role of the conductor, the change manager may occasionally step in to help out in an area.  But they will most frequently look for the gaps that may cause the change to fail, much like a jazz musician looks for ways to keep improvisational jazz going.

Jazz Musician

In a jazz ensemble, there’s no one leader.  The music is led dynamically as different musicians add their performance to the piece, and it constantly evolves.  In organizations with well-managed disciplines for internal communication, training and development, and project management, the role may feel more like that of a jazz musician dynamically finding ways to add to the process in the service of the overall performance.

Change managers shouldn’t be afraid to do what they need to do as a one-man band, to lead like a conductor, or to perform as a part of the ensemble in the overall flow of creating success for the change.

Most of the time when we’re working to change an organization, we’re focused on the benefits of the change.  We’re speaking to the utopian vision of what can be.  However, to be effective at change, we must acknowledge that every change has negatives and loss.  And sometimes the negatives can’t be predicted.

Resisting Loss

As I explored in Why People Don’t Resist Change, people don’t resist change.  Built on William Bridges’ work in Managing Transitions, people resist loss.  Sometimes that loss is known or can be anticipated, but sometimes the loss is unanticipated.  Therefore, we must consider not only what we anticipate people may lose but also the things that they think they may lose – and the things they don’t even know they might lose.

Conquistadors, Christians, and Chaos

The Spanish conquistadors in their quest for gold decimated the Latin American peoples they found with disease.  African cultures were destroyed by the imperialism of French, Belgian, Portuguese, and British colonials.  The Native American Indian cultures were destroyed by the European settlers as they made their way from East to West in North America.  Even aboriginal tribes in Australia were disturbed by farmers and eventually Christians.

In the early 20th century, there were still untouched aboriginal tribes who lived in the Stone Age.  Their best tool for cutting wood was a stone axe.  They were difficult to make and not very effective, but they were all the tribe had.  Christians who wanted to share the good news of Christ with these “uninformed” natives brought to them their beliefs and steel axe heads.

Side-stepping the issue of imposing your religious beliefs on another group for a moment, there was a bigger problem, and one that was caused not by malintent or even paternalism.  It was an unintended consequence that unraveled the very fabric of their society and led to unintended consequences.

Rituals and Results

In these tribes, the cost of stone axes made them things that only the elders possessed.  The younger men would come to the elders and ask for the use of the axe head.  As a part of this, they’d compensate and pay homage to the elders.  This was a part of the fabric that bound together the tribe in a set of interdependent relationships.

When Christians introduced these steel axe heads, they did so by primarily giving them to younger men and women, thereby eliminating the need to maintain the relationship with the elders.  The result was that the social fabric of the tribe became frayed and decayed.  It led to prostitution and the “misuse” of the innovation itself.

Not even the most enlightened could have foreseen what redistributing power in the form of a precious axe head could do.  The intended consequence of raising material comfort never materialized, as those with the axes ultimately failed to use their additional time in ways that would move them or their society forward.  So, the innovation of a steel axe head didn’t contribute much to additional material comfort.  It only left the tribes with challenges they had never encountered.

Social Responsibility and Monitoring

Change managers cannot predict the unanticipated consequences by their definition.  They can, however, find ways to monitor the change in such a way as to be open to discovering the emergence of harm, so that it’s possible to forestall further damage to a group.  In this way, change managers can accept that it’s possible the change may cause harm and, at the same time, take steps to guard against it and stop it if necessary.

It’s not what you think.  It’s a framework for understanding the relationship between who you communicate with, the role they have, and the aspects of a project.  The RACI name comes from the roles that someone can have: responsible, accountable, consulted, or informed.  It’s typically a grid, with the columns as the people and the aspects of the projects as the rows.  The intersection contains a single letter that represents the role (or roles) the person has.


The columns of a RACI chart are the people that you’re interacting with.  Sometimes, this may be a specific person’s name, but in most of the cases, it’s likely that the columns will be labeled with a small group of people.  For instance, you might have a column named “engineers” and another named “marketing.”


Projects of any scope and scale are not one single thing to be done.  There are always steps in the process or parts of the deliverable that must be done.  The aspects that form the rows of a RACI chart are a meaningful way to break the overall project into smaller parts.  While in many cases, the way that you break down the RACI chart will match the work breakdown structure of the project, it may be that the way you need to think about responsibility, accountability, consultation, and informing does not directly match the work breakdown structure.

The Intersection

What’s powerful about the RACI chart is the capacity to communicate the role of the person or group for an aspect of the project.  Let me briefly summarize each of the roles – slightly out of order from the acronym to make it more understandable.  They are:

  • Accountable – This is the person who will ultimately be held accountable for whether the aspect of the project is successful or not. Said differently, if this goes spectacularly wrong, who is at risk of being fired or demoted?  Generally, this role can only be used once for a row, and it’s always assigned to a person and not a group.
  • Responsible – The responsible person or group are the ones doing the work. They may or may not be held accountable, but someone must do the work, so they’re identified as responsible.  There are generally very few responsible parties for a given aspect.  As with accountability, a single responsible party is ideal.
  • Consulted – The consulted group are neither accountable nor responsible but are important to the decision-making process. Their input is needed even if they don’t have the final say.  It’s common to have several people consulted on an aspect.
  • Informed – Those who are informed are being made aware of progress on an aspect of the project, but they are not being given the opportunity to directly provide input on the item. Even more people are typically informed but not consulted.
  • None – If the intersection between person and aspect is left blank, then there is no communication about the item to the person or group for that aspect of the project. Many of the intersections between people will remain blank.

The Clarity

RACI charts represent the understanding of the project team about everyone’s role.  It helps those who are being informed to realize that they’re not going to be consulted for input on an aspect.  This can help reduce misunderstandings that would typically occur later in the project and create hurt feelings.

While it may be frustrating to address the concerns about who should be accountable, responsible, consulted, and informed up front, the down-stream savings are well worth the effort.

The Evolution

RACI documents tend to be evolving documents in any project – including change projects.  They start with what is known, and additional detail is added as new stakeholders are added to the people columns and new aspects are added to the rows.

A fundamental question about the way to approach change in an organization is to decide whether you’re going to change the person themselves or whether you’re going to change the environment the person finds themselves in.  While people tend to take up arms and defend their position, it may turn out that the answer lies in the murky ground between these two extremes.

Changing Other People

In self-help and recovery circles, trying to change or “fix” other people is a huge red flag.  The idea is that if you can’t cope with life with others being who they are, then it’s probably you, rather than them, who must be wrong.  However, this obscures a very accurate message that the only person you can change is yourself.  There are jokes about changing others such as, “How many counselors does it take to change a lightbulb?”  The answer is “One, but the lightbulb really has to want to change.”

People come to counselors, therapists, and psychologists because they want to change – or at least they want to feign desire to change to support someone else’s hopes, whether that be a family, a friend, a fiancé, or a judge.  However, the rate of personal change, even with professional assistance, is astonishingly low.  (See The Heart and Soul of Change, Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, and Change or Die for background and stories.)  The truth is personal change is difficult and trying to change others is harder.

However, the kinds of fundamental changes that people are trying to make, with help and on their own, aren’t exactly the kinds of behavior changes we’re looking for in an organization.  Rarely are their deep-seated childhood issues about whether to use a fax machine or email.  So, while changing other people can be very difficult, some changes are easier.

In the middle are the kinds of changes that most organizational change efforts are targeting.  Abstract concepts like concern for the organization and engagement are the sorts of things that change efforts typically seek, but because these are amorphous concepts that have no real specific behaviors, they’re often difficult to accomplish directly.

While it’s true that an organization can only change by individuals changing their behaviors, it’s also true that often we’re not sure what behaviors we’d want people to change to accomplish the organizational change.

Changing the System

Changing the system is difficult but for different reasons.  The rise of agile methodologies has elevated the awareness that you can’t plan for everything.  (See Agile Change Management for more on agile.)  Eisenhower said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy.”  Plans can never be good enough.  Despite that, we still approach changing the results by changing the system.

There are reasons to consider the system impacts of change, including the kinds of results you see as the system iterates.  (See Model: Systems Thinking for more.)  However, it’s equally frightening to recognize that organizational changes are often wicked problems.  (See Model: Wicked Problems for more.) Systemic changes often cause unintended consequences that can’t be foreseen.  (See Diffusion of Innovations for more.)

However, we’ve learned that sometimes changing the system can powerfully change the individual.  (See The Behavior Function.)  We can change the expectations and metrics of the system, and this can change the way that people behave and therefore the results the organization sees.  (See The Tyranny of Metrics for more on the impacts of metrics.)

Not Either but Both

The best chances for change success are neither to focus exclusively on the person nor exclusively on the system.  By investing in improving the functioning of individuals, you create more organizational resilience.  (See Emotional Intelligence, Resilient, and Grit for the impact of personal growth on organizational resilience.)  However, because individuals are so notoriously difficult to change, it’s necessary to leverage systemic levers to encourage – rather than discourage – the right behaviors.

The world of change management owes a lot to Kurt Lewin.  He’s responsible for the idea of change as three steps: unfreezing, change and transition, and refreezing.  More importantly, his research into the motivation of individuals left us with topological maps and force fields that led to an elementary understanding of human behavior.

Topological Maps and Force Fields

Lewin was particularly invested in the application of mathematical and “hard science” techniques to the emerging field of psychology.  He recognized that some forces increased with closer proximity and that resistance may not be a lack of motivation towards the goal but a set of countervailing forces pushing back against the goal.  In organizational change, we see this all the time as the organization resists the change and attempts to resume the status quo.

In the exploration of how people are motivated, Lewin arrived at a simple – despite being opaque – function to describe human behavior.

Behavior = f(Person, Environment)

The simple formula relates that behavior is a function of both the person and the environment (including the situation) they’re in.  While fundamental attribution error causes us to believe that everything should be assigned to the character of a person, Lewin invites us to look at the environment.  (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about fundamental attribution error.)  We know from subsequent research that strikingly little is hardwired into our genetics.  (See No Two Alike for more.)

While there’s no elaboration on how these two variables interact, the simple awareness of the fundamental truth that behavior can be shaped by the environment and simultaneously resisted by a strong will creates the opportunity to see that you can encourage behaviors, thereby making them more prevalent.


We think that we’re the masters of our world and that we make our choices free of influence.  From the results of movie theatres that used subliminal messaging to encourage popcorn sales to the marketers in supermarkets getting us to buy the higher-margin items and the employers who encourage healthier eating patterns by changing the kinds of snacks they provide, we’re silently being shaped into behaviors that others want us to make.  (See Influence and Nudge for examples of how others are shaping our behavior.)

It’s as if they’re speaking directly to something below our consciousness.

Elephant, Rider, and Path

Jonathan Haidt came up with a basic model of how our reason and rationale is like the rider sitting on top of an emotional elephant.  If the rider is paying attention and the elephant isn’t particularly motivated, all is well.  However, when the rider loses focus or the elephant becomes particularly triggered, the elephant is clearly in control.  If neither the rider nor the elephant is focusing, then they’ll lumber along the familiar path.  (See The Happiness Hypothesis and Switch for more on the model.)

Daniel Kahneman expresses it slightly differently in Thinking, Fast and Slow as System 1 – the automatic responses – and System 2 – or rational thought.  He says that System 1 can lie to (or mislead) System 2 and thereby skew the results.  So, while your rational rider thinks it’s making reasonable decisions, it could be that System 1 is deceiving your rationale to get to the decision that it wants.


The behavior of an individual is therefore sometimes a result of their conscious control – the person part of the equation.  Behavior is sometimes, therefore, person-led.  Conversely, there are many times when behavior is the result of the easiest path put before the elephant and rider, and therefore the environment is the primary driver of behavior.

Ultimately, behavior doesn’t have one cause but two – and they relate to one another in unknown ways.

Like any movement that becomes popular, agile has become more buzzword and less meaning than was originally intended.  When 17 software developers met in Utah, they didn’t set out to change the world of software development or change how projects are managed.  They came together to share a common passion for making software development more successful, because the industry had a dismal record of failures – much like change management today.  (See Why the 70% Failure Rate of Change Projects Is Probably Right.)  The heart of a desire for successful projects can be applied to any project – including change projects.

More This, Less That

The Agile Manifesto lays out what the group believed in a set of four principles in the form of conflicts:

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

They’re careful to indicate that both are valuable, but the things on the left are more valuable.  Change managers will recognize that all but the second are general statements that apply to change projects as well as software development projects.

Boiling down the statements to an even more basic level, there are two keys to take away.  First, people are important, and they can’t be removed from the process.  Second, we can’t plan for every contingency; we must react to change.

Heuristic, Chaotic, and Wicked

We now live in a world where we’re not following the single formula that leads to the right result.  Instead, we’re working with a set of heuristic processes that lead us to the right location.  Richard Florida called for The Rise of the Creative Class back in 2001 when he recognized the work that was being done was not following a single process.  Before that, in 1970, Alvin Toffler wrote the book, Future Shock, where he coined the term “future shock” to mean a degree of change that people couldn’t cope with.  About the same time, Horst Riddle and his colleagues started speaking and writing about wicked problems and the nature of unsolvable problems.  (See Wicked Problems for more.)

By all accounts, we’ve entered a world where we simply cannot expect that we can plan for all the situations we find ourselves in.  Instead of rigid planning, we find the need to have more agility and resilience in our planning progress, and that means continuously readjusting the course of our projects.


While the original “waterfall” software development lifecycle was designed to be iterative, few people did it that way.  They instead tried to plan everything and get the whole software developed in one project cycle.  Agile turned this on its head by removing the big, upfront planning cycle and instead replacing it with a vision of the end target and enough planning to take the initial steps towards that goal.  After each cycle, a review is preformed to capture learning and readjust the trajectory so that the end target stays in focus.

In an iterative model, the goal is to deliver as much to the organization as quickly as possible.  It has developers working on the things that add the most value to the organization first, so even if the project is cancelled early, there’s a working solution that delivers value.

Applying Agile Methods to Change

Agile can be directly applied to change projects by simply mapping out the end target and then only enough of how to get there that can be accomplished in a few weeks.  At the end of that time, the process comes together to evaluate what was learned and what the next steps might be.


Agile isn’t without critics.  They claim that the process is more wasteful than a waterfall project, citing the countless missteps that happen in the process.  These criticisms are true – but they’re weighed against the additional planning work that may or may not have identified the problem and all the downstream effects.  The net-net for most organizations is that agile approaches to software development – or change – mitigate their risk and don’t cost substantially more than a traditional project management approach.  Most organizations decide that the additional risk reduction is worth the cost.