Did that headline stress you? Made you feel not up to speed and that you must do something about it? My apologies, but that was my intention..

Let’s first hover around change and discuss agile in a bit. Why do we change? There are loads of theories and research on the topic and we use terms as catalysts, pain, enablers, delayers, etc. Most of them stress either having the right reason for change OR how to drive change regardless of reason.

Aside from all of those theories and models, experience has taught me that we can change (and I mean really buying into it) if it is towards something we really want (personally) OR away from something we really don’t want. It’s quite simple. Although the first is more fun and engaging it is the latter that is the most common reason for actual change – the “do or die”-scenario.

Our brain is programmed to keep away from danger and pain. To change, we need to feel the urge to get away from something or we’ll get “burned”. In an ideal setting though, you have both the getting away-part as well as the towards something great-part. If your organisation has a very good reason to get away from something it won’t be so hard for people to change but it won’t be fun and when the transition is complete most people are exhausted and unengaged. That’s why you need the “towards to”-part as well. To make the journey more attractive, fun and towards something positive.

But can you construct this? Can you make up both the fire and fun-reason if there is only some flames fuming in a corner of your organisation? Perhaps by setting vision, purpose and goals for the change initiative? Nope. Won’t work. Simply because you’re almost always pushing change on people that they don’t feel is necessary or don’t feel motivated to adhere to.

Here’s a common situation in corporate life. Top management (often a new one) want to do things differently and decides upon reorganisation and some other improvements. Let’s throw in some process improvements. The business is currently running ok and the reason for changing is that management wants to shake things up, improve internal cooperation, efficiency and/or customer focus, push profitability and prepare the organisation for the future. And these are nice enough reasons. Management try to create a vision that is positive and engaging for their employees; something to fight for. And maybe, they even try to make it alluring for their employees on a personal level (which is quite hard).

People hardly ever welcome changes in structures or systems that are familiar, i.e. organisational design, way of working, etc.  And in this situation, there’s no fire-reason, meaning there is no alarming factor that will make people understand that it’s time to move or something really bad will happen. At its very best, this situation will maintain cooperation, efficiency and profitability at status quo. More likely, the initiative will create a severe loss in commitment, motivation and engagement since the people of the organisation feel forced or pushed to make changes they don’t think are paramount for future survival and success. And this is not going to set the organisation up for the future, I tell you.

Now, you might be thinking; where is she going with this? Does she mean we can never change organisational structures or systems unless we’re on the brink of bankruptcy?

No, I don’t mean that. But I’m trying to make a case of doing it differently.

A manager from the example above might argue: “we did think of the people first, that’s why we tried to make better structures and systems. Well, that’s where so many change initiatives go wrong. It’s hardly ever right to force changes in organisational structures or processes as a primary action for improvement. It’s merely trying to put on a band aid instead of heeling the wound. If you’re people aren’t engaged enough, they’re not communicating enough, they’re not working as a team, they’re not prioritising customer value or act in the best interest of the company you can never heal that wound with a band aid of different organisational changes or process improvements. You’re just containing the problem and most likely, creating new ones.

Corporations are made up of people. It’s not hard to understand but so many of us act as if it’s all the other stuff that make up a company (products, services, other assets) but it’s not. People are key. If there are no people, there’s no business. Right?

Having made that clear, the case I’m making is to always start your transformations with the people, on an individual level. What do they need? What makes your people tick? How can we create prerequisites for the different individuals so that they can feel motivated and increase their self-leadership (taking responsibility)?

Here’s where agile can play a big part.

To keep it simple, agile leadership/agile management is basically about self-leadership, making it unnecessary with formal management. But, for most companies, especially the ones with a bit of a history of traditional management in a hierarchical setting, that would take years of hard work and most times radical changes in people’s mindset. For pretty much any organisation (not being a smaller start-up) it’s a far-fetched goal.

Instead, let’s look at the values behind agile leadership; trust, transparency, motivation and start there. Start by trying to be better leaders. The safer your employees feel, the easier it will get to achieve the pull-effect on change. And then perhaps, the fire-reason doesn’t always have to be so alarming.

Make people awesome by respecting who they are and what they value, even though they’re different from you (I don’t mean on the outside but on the inside). Trust them to make the right decisions and let them fail and learn from their mistakes. Keep transparency high thereby taking away the feeling of being misguided or misled. Basically, take away fear and make safety a prerequisite.

(Also, please, stop trying to control everything and everyone. So often we implement policies and control mechanisms to keep track of the few people that, perhaps otherwise, would do a bad job when the result is that we control everyone unnecessarily and suffocate creativity and innovation.)

Set fierce vision and goals but start SMALL. Experiment and learn. Use agile values, principles and tools to develop incrementally and deliver value continuously. If you are changing any processes, then change the ones that create prerequisites for leadership and people development; talent management. Agile HR is a radical approach to HR and talent management, designed to boost engagement and make people awesome.

By using the principles and tools of agile leadership and agile HR/agile people, you create an environment where people can feel safe, motivated and engaged. Your change initiative will perhaps not even be necessary, or the people will understand themselves what changes to make, and they’ll ask for it or at least won’t see it as that big of a threat as they otherwise would have. Trust your people. Believe that they will do the very best they can. Stop seeing them as puppets that you must wind up whenever you want them to do something.

Going back to organisational change; If you don’t have a valid fire-reason, then leave structures and systems alone. Don’t change it. Do work arounds or change only what’s rotten. I can even go as far as to state that you should keep your functional organisation. Instead, put your money and effort in developing an agile management and leadership for people on all levels.

Ps. If you want a quick and easy (although maybe temporary) boost of morale and engagement. Try giving your employees an unexpected/non-recurring gift (travel, money, tickets to the cinema, etc.). Gather your people. Tell them that you know they always try their best, that this company would be nothing without them and give them their gift. This will bring you far more value for your money then changing structures when there’s no “fire”.