Being a change agent

Posted on May 25th, 2014 in Agile by siddharta || 2 Comments

Yesterday, I spoke at Absolute Agile @ Hyderabad. The topic of my talk was 1/3 Agile, or being a change agent. The slides are above, but they don’t make much sense on their own, so here is some explanation for the slides:

What does it take to be agile?

There are three areas to focus on to improve agility:

  • The process itself: stories, feedback, incremental and iterative development…
  • Building strong teams: Self organisation, collaboration, continuous improvement…
  • Using effective technical practices: TDD, continuous integration, clean code…

Out of these three, most organisations focus a lot on the process, but ignore teams and technical practices. This leads to what I call 1/3 Agile, where we are limited to only a subset of the benefits.

What stop us from building better teams and using better technical practices?

The audience raised a number of obstacles that stop them from having strong teams and tech practices. These obstacles generally fall into three buckets:

  • Culture: Some say that their organisation culture is still command and control, and these practices wont work there
  • Authority: Some say that they don’t have the authority to make the change, and it must come from senior management
  • Skillset: Some say that they would like to do these but don’t know how

What now?

We have two options when faced with these obstacles.

  • We can give up and stay with the status quo
  • Or we can be a change agent and shape the future

Do we want to be remembered as someone who wanted to do something great, but wasn’t allowed to by the organisation, and in the end you did nothing of note? I hope not :) and in that case, the other option is to be an active change agent.

Being a change agent

Three vital skills that we need to put to use are:

  • Showing leadership
  • Building relationships
  • Exerting influence

Showing Leadership

  • First, leadership doesn’t require authority. Anyone can be a leader–it is not reserved for the executive management. In fact, in 99% of the time, leaders do not have authority. Even in the case of senior management, whom employees assume have the most authority, most of the work is done without authority. This is because a lot of work involves collaboration across many groups and departments and unless you are the CEO, you don’t have authority across the organisation. So we have to dispel with the notion that leadership requires authority.
  • Before the transformation, team members may be thinking of their job as showing up, writing some code or testing, collecting a paycheck and going home. They may be thinking the same during the transformation as well. So they may not care about the transformation: agile, waterfall, whatever it is is irrelevant, and you won’t be able to make a strong team if they don’t care. You need to ask them: why are we here? what are we doing? where are we going?
  • When it comes to teams, the first step of to take is to communicate a vision. Most of the time, there is a lack of vision. Team members don’t know why they are doing this “agile thing”, apart from the fact that someone, somewhere said that the company is going agile (what does that mean?). It is up to you, as the change agent, to make sure the teams see a vision where strong, self organised teams are creating great software. Without teams buying into this vision, nothing else will bear much fruit.

Building Relationships

  • There is a saying: “Role power gives compliance, relationship power gives commitment.” 
  • Role power is the authority derived from your role. or designation, in the organisation. When you ask someone to do something from a position of authority, they will comply. Their performance appraisal and paycheck depends on it. But they may not be enthusiastic about it. They might just do the minimum required to make you happy, and then stop.
  • There is another source of power in an organisation and that is relationship power. This is the power from having good relationships with other people. When you need something done and you leverage a good relationship, it gets done because the other person believes in you or trusts you. They always have the option to decline, so the fact that they are doing it means they will do it a lot better. They are not doing it just to comply with you.
  • Compliance has no lasting power. The moment you look somewhere else, the compliance will stop as well. Commitment is the only way to build long lasting change.
  • Building relationships is important. Of course, build relationships with the teams you work with, but also build relationships with others in different places in the organisation.

Exerting Influence

  • Al Switzler and the folks at VitalSmarts have a book called Influencer. Their influencing model is based on six leverage points on influencing which fall into 3 categories: Personal, Social, Structural
  • Personal is when you try to change a person’s outlook directly
  • Social is when you use peers, groups, communities to influence change
  • Structural is about changing the system or environment in such a way to influence change


  • When trying to make a change, it is important to align the message to the person or group. Only when it is aligned is there motivation to make the change.
  • For example, if you are trying to transform a team, you need to first understand what each individual wants from their work. Some may want an opportunity to write beautiful code. Others may want the excitement of delivering value to their customers. Some people want work life balance to spend time with their kids. You need to show a vision of how agile can help team members reach these goals in the future. Maybe you will emphasise technical practices to the first person, and rapid incremental delivery to the second one, and sustainable pace to the third one. Of course, you will also explain that this is the end state, it may take many months to get there, but you will get buy in for going on the journey.
  • Similarly, when talking to senior managers, you will need to align with their goals. Maybe they care about time to market, or innovation, or delivering quality with high customer satisfaction.
  • If there is no alignment, there will be no buy in. If you talk to developers about time to market, they may not care; they may thing that agile is just a way to manipulate them to get more work from them. Same way if you talk to a manager that agile gives work life balance, they may not care; worse, they may think that it is a touchy-feely thing which will reduce the company’s profits.
  • Often times, a big problem is that a few people believe in agile and they declare a transformation for the organization. But the vision is only from their point of view. For example, a CEO might tell at an all-hands, that we are adopting agile because we need to deliver faster to the market. But unless the message is translated to benefits for all the other people in the middle — from senior management, middle management, first line management, and team members — then without that no transformation will happen. Maybe something might happen only to comply with the directive, from the role authority of the CEO. But there will be no commitment. It will fizzle out.


  • One of the biggest obstacles that gets highlighted is that of culture. Be it organisational culture, or the Indian culture, it is the most common reason given as to why team practices and technical practices cannot be implemented.
  • Some people say that Indian culture is by nature command and control, right from schooling to the society, and the same continues even when people come for work. Hence self organisation cannot work.
  • Others say that Indian companies are built as command and control organisation and cannot be changed.
  • Still others say that since most Indian companies are service companies with clients abroad, and their USP is about competing on price, hence command and control is required.
  • I don’t buy these arguments. There are companies in India where self organised teams are a reality. These companies are hiring the same Indians as everyone else. Hence I don’t buy the argument that self organisation is not possible in India due to culture. There is something more to it.
  • Similarly, even in highly command and control organisations, there are certain departments or teams where the culture is different.
  • If we look at it, there are three levels of culture: The country culture, the organisation culture, and the team culture. Generally, team culture overrides organisational culture, which overrides country culture. Certainly all the cultures have an impact, for example when dealing with other departments, the organisation culture may play a primary role. And when dealing with relationships, country culture is primary. But at a team level, it is possible to create your own cocoon of culture through leadership and relationship building.
  • Lots of people talk about culture as an excuse for not even trying. This is the big mistake we make.

Running your own experiments

  • Sometimes the reason given for not trying team and technical practices is that someone in the organisation will not approve of it.
  • Actually, the truth in most organisations (especially larger ones) is that as long as the deliveries are being met, generally no one cares what else you do. So, if the team is excited about TDD, they can just go ahead and do it and no one will even notice. Just make sure that the delivery is not getting messed up, and you wont attract any attention to yourself.
  • What this means is that it is possible to make incremental changes for the better, slowly over a period of time. Just make sure you don’t tell anyone :) It is only after you become successful that people will even take notice.
  • There is a quote attributed to Grace Hopper: It is easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission
  • In some organisations, it is better not to ask. Some people are tuned to saying No for anything that they don’t understand. Often you can just go ahead and do your changes and no one will even care. And later if someone questions, then you can show them the benefits you are getting.
  • Sometimes, running experiments this way sounds risky and change agents are unwilling to place themselves in a vulnerable spot like this. But a change agent has to do it. Hopefully, you have built relationships with others that will reduce this risk.


  • Do not ignore networking. Take every opportunity to build relationships with others, especially people outside your team or department.
  • Social capital is very very important for making change happen.
  • In his book Tame The Flow, Steve Tendon contrasts span on control vs sphere of influence.
  • Span of control is the number of things that are directly under our control. Usually this is quite small — maybe the team, perhaps a few more things.
  • Sphere of influence is the number of things that we have no direct control over, but we can influence. We can get things done in the sphere of influence, but it has to be done via someone else.
  • Being able to get things done through other people is the single most important skill for a change agent, and this is only possible through having good, strong relationships.

The power of community

  • One person cannot drive a large change. It is vital to build a community to support the change. Find the folks who are supportive, and encourage them.
  • Don’t limit the community to a single role. Who knows, maybe there is a director in another department who is interested in agile. Welcome her. Maybe she could influence the director in your department who is lukewarm to agile.
  • A healthy community also helps to drive social influence. People are most likely to listen to peers. If their peers are talking about self organisation or technical practices, then they are more inclined to try it than if an external person like you tried to convince them.

So, what is YOUR vision?

  • Being a change agent is a unique opportunity to learn and put into use crucial skills that are very important to career success
  • Don’t wait for change to miraculously happen from elsewhere
  • Don’t wait for the organisation culture to miraculously change before you take the next step with your teams
  • Building these skills takes a long time, and lots of practice, so start today!
  • Remember, that YOU can make the difference


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