Overcoming Resistance to Change in Agile Transformation

8 min readAug 2, 2023


Recorded By Mike Cottmeyer

When people say they have a culture problem that’s preventing them from sustaining change in an Agile Transformation, what they’re really saying is that they have a cognitive dissonance problem. You have an inability to help people see how Agile is going to improve the organization. Blaming people and telling them they’re being resistant to change isn’t going to close the gap and make that cognitive dissonance go away. So, you’re going to need a better plan of attack. Join Mike as he makes the case for why you need to stop pointing the finger and start fixing what’s really broken in the organization.

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Video Transcript

Yes, we want the organization to become proficient in whatever we’re asking it to do. However, we must recognize that they are new to these concepts. As change agents, it’s our responsibility to meet people where they are and help them understand and transition into the new ways. Blaming them for resistance to change or command and control only reveals our own ignorance in how we approach the situation.

(musical interlude)

Is Agile Transformation a Culture Problem?

Recently, I composed a tweet for our marketing team, stating that if we align our systems and practices around our customers and markets, a culture of agility will naturally emerge. Agile is essentially about creating alignment and ensuring that everyone focuses on the needs of customers and end-users.

I’d like to delve deeper into this tweet and discuss the idea further. In the past, I used to emphasize that leading with culture alone might not be the most effective approach. Many organizations we encounter operate in functional silos, have traditional PMOs, and rigid governance and control structures. Simply advocating for a culture of agility in such environments may not immediately solve the challenges.

Imagine if we could magically establish a culture of agility overnight. People embrace the concept, are willing to change, and are eager to embrace agile practices. Now what? We still have a business to run and products to deliver in the next few months. We must be able to make commitments and operate efficiently. Simply having an agile culture without addressing the concrete practices and structures might not lead to immediate success.

Early on, agile discussions often revolved around culture, as it appeared to be the primary challenge in most organizations. However, the focus on culture alone could lead to frustration. People may resist agile practices, and we might attribute it to a resistance to change or leadership styles. But in reality, we need to consider the practical aspects of implementation and ensure that the entire ecosystem aligns with agile principles.

But, a lot of times if you really get up underneath it, what’s happening is that, is that the people that are resistant really deeply understand how the organization is currently working. Some of the most interesting conversations I have I’ve had over the last 13, 14, 15 years are with like hardcore security engineers or architects that are responsible for like a 50-year-old COBOL legacy platform, something like that.

And, you know, they’re being told, Hey, you need to do Scrum. And there they’re looking at that methodology in the context of the complexity that they are that they’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis. And there is a tremendous amount of cognitive dissonance because they can’t see how that methodology is actually going to solve their problem.

And then, you know, fresh-faced ScrumMasters right out of CSM training or something like that is like, no, you just got to trust the process. You just got to do it. It’s going to work and it’s going to be great. And they’re looking at these systems that they’re in and they’re going like, Yeah, I don’t see it right.

So again, just a tremendous level of cognitive dissonance. And so sometimes I think that we mistake cognitive dissonance or somebody’s inability to see a credible path forward as a culture problem, right? And so, it’s I’ve unpacked culture a little bit, right? So, so I’ve been doing this talk. I did it up in Detroit. I did it in Raleigh a few months ago.

And I start talking to people in the room about what culture is. And about half the people think of culture really in terms of how the organization feels like what the vibe is, and then part of the room. Maybe the other half sees it as like the behavior is like the default DNA, like how the the organization instinctively reflexes in the face of whatever’s going on.

Right? And I think both views of culture are the same. So, we want to have a good vibe. We want everybody to, like, come in to work. We want everybody to feel safe. And we also want the default behaviors to be open to change. And we want the mechanisms and the tools that we adopt to be incremental and iterative.

And we want people to think in small batches. And all these kinds of different things. So so just know that culture is a lot of things and its different things to different people. I read a lot of the books and I mean, I think there are definitive definitions, but as individuals, a lot of times we’re using that word pretty loosely.

And so when we say we have a culture problem, my hypothesis is, is that we as we often have a cognitive dissonance problem or we have a failure to create a clear path forward problem, which is really a cognitive dissonance problem. So, we really have a cognitive dissonance problem, right?

Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance in Large Organizations

So, a lot of times the way that I talk about this, it’s like I understand culture is a first order concern and a lot of these organizations, but it’s not like the first place to start.

If we want people to adopt Agile practices, let’s consider that the culture may be the problem. Perhaps the resistance is not driven by people’s integrity or value systems. Instead, it could be due to entrenched processes or cognitive dissonance. Some may struggle to see how the proposed changes will make a difference given the current state of affairs. In such cases, this resistance is reasonable.

Imagine a world where the business architecture, business capability model, domain-driven design, product architecture, and key strategies are in alignment. In this ideal scenario, the way the business, technology, and product organizations see the problem, along with the organizational design, all work congruently, with nothing working against each other.

The main idea is to organize systems and practices around customers and markets. If we could achieve alignment between technology, business, product, and organization, creating a composable enterprise or product-driven organization, the question arises: is there business value in it, and is that value worth investing in?

Having established that there is indeed business value worth investing in, the next step is to assess the current state of the organization and identify the gap between the current situation and the desired idealized end state.

The gap represents the cognitive dissonance. To address this, we can create a plan for incremental and iterative changes. First, we need to decide which parts of the organization to start with, and then plan for transition patterns in an iterative manner.

The question is whether making incremental and iterative changes, organization by organization, workgroup by workgroup, and team by team, would be worth investing in. The answer is yes, it might be worth investing in.

Now, the focus shifts to putting together an Agile Transformation Roadmap and timeline for implementing the plan. We need to create intermediate outcomes and measure progress. Additionally, it is possible to hold people accountable for the structural, behavioral, and process changes required for the transformation.

In summary, we know where we are, and we have a clear vision of where we want to go.

We know our initial conditions. We know our desired conditions. We have an incremental and iterative plan for getting there with outcomes-based metrics driven. We understand at least where we would like to be. We might get there, but we at least know where we like to be. So we have a baseline, and then we actually start making those changes, right?

And then as we systematically make the changes and start to adopt more of the Agile practices, what I believe happens is that over time the cognitive dissonance begins to lift, the resistance to change begins to lift, people’s openness to new ideas and ways of working begins to open up. Because now they start to see not only that you’ve acknowledged the gap, but you’ve also addressed their cognitive dissonance.

You’ve given them a plan for helping them to resolve that cognitive dissonance. And now, over time, they’re actually starting to see the new process practices and processes start to have a positive effect on the business. And then what happens is hearts and minds start to open up, behavior starts to change, the kinds of cultural things around, like your default DNA.

Your default behavior patterns begin to change, the mood begins to lighten, people start to become more empowered.

Meeting The Organization Where They Are

But I think part of the problem is that as Agile as we get really, really excited about where we want to be, and we want to get there overnight, and sometimes it’s a process. I’ll tell you guys a funny story.

I have Tim, our marketing guy, on the phone with me right now, and I just came out of jujitsu class with him, and I roll jiu-jitsu together, and we were working on some moves, and the instructor that was doing the moves was an expert, right? And he’s trying to show us everything all at once. And like everybody in the class is getting really lost.

And so, we were talking about at the end of class, like yes, we want the organization to be a master at whatever it is that we’re asking it to do. But we also had to realize that they’re really, really new to these concepts. So what we as change agents, were we as Agile as have to be able to do is we have to be able to meet people where they are with the level of skills and understand that they have, and it’s up to us to bridge them into the new world, pointing at them and telling them that they’re resistant to change or command and control or whatever, and actually exposes our ignorance in terms of how we’re thinking about things rather than inviting the people we’re talking about. So that is my encouragement to you guys. So if you’re in an organization that’s resistant to change, just align around a possibility, what might be true and then really get a clear plan together for how we might make that true and get agreement to maybe run some experiments and try.

Because if you can run the experiments in a way that really works and try, then you can start opening up hearts and minds. But this idea of saying, okay, it’s culture first, it’s everything or nothing, that just doesn’t work. It’s just not how people learn, and it’s not how organizations change. So, I hope you guys have a great day and look forward to engaging with you guys in the reply.

About Mike

Mike serves as LeadingAgile’s resident champion of core agile values and principles. He is passionate about solving the challenges associated with adopting agile in larger, more complex enterprises and is passionate about leading large-scale agile transformations…Read More.

Originally published at https://www.leadingagile.com on August 2, 2023.