Making Change Where Change is Possible

I used to think the best way to go about change was to focus first on the biggest problems hurting a team. The basic premise of this approach was that even though not everything may be perfect, as long as we address the most significant obstacles a team is having, we could live with the smaller problems for now. After studying the topic more and coaching different agile teams, I realized this approach has some challenges. A better approach is to focus on engaging and supporting people in the small changes that want to happen.

The first problem with focusing on a team’s biggest problem is that what I see as a significant problem is rarely the same way a team sees it. As an Agile Coach, I bring a perspective the team doesn’t usually have. I look at things like how the team works together, how effectively they deliver to their customers and how much time they spend on non-value-adding activities. But, if I want to create change based on what I see, I must convince the team first.

Convincing people requires teaching them about a new concept (like slack vs. utilization or flow efficiency), understanding why it is important, and agreeing that they should address it. Convincing happens when people start getting lectured or receiving a lesson about agile they did not ask for.

The second problem is that people are always dealing with multiple priorities. Improvement work only happens in the bigger context of a business, where people are busy, and there’s always more work to do than capacity. Even if they’re not ideal, the way things get done acts like a gravitational mass, pulling everything back to the status quo. Just having great, bright ideas isn’t enough to create change. You have to pay attention to what changes are possible at any given time.

You can be the most brilliant leader in the history of humanity with the best ideas but if the context isn’t right for a change it won’t happen. If the conditions are right then the smallest push will set things moving.

– Dave Snowden, What is the locus of change?

Finally, even if you can successfully convince someone of an issue and even if it’s their top priority, you can run into problems surrounding timing and ability. Sometimes the time is just not right to make a change, or the change is asking too much from people and is over-reaching beyond what they can do. In either of these cases, the change won’t stick, and things will revert.

Nudging Change

Instead of a more traditional approach, where you design or declare what needs to be changed, a better approach is paying attention to where the system is ready for change and creating small nudges. When a system is ready to be nudged, all it takes is some indirect support and influence to help it move forward, one step away from where it is.

Nudges are small, contextual interventions that change the decision-making context (not incentives) in order to encourage behavioural change

– Linda Doyle, Change & Complexity: Vector Theory of Change

Here are some tips on how I identify where a nudge is possible and promote more nudge-style changes:

  • Start noticing the gaps: Pay attention to the interactions that are happening around you. Pick up on when you hear different people talk about the same thing, and notice how people communicate. Look for patterns, gaps and feedback loops.
  • Explore what’s influencing the system: Instead of comparing what’s happening against best practices or identifying problems to fix, try to understand what’s influencing the system. Talk to different people and ask questions. Ask them what they are trying to achieve, what problems they face, and what influences how work gets done.
  • Don’t rely on top-down directives to drive change: Mangement-driven change can create resistance and weaken team decision-making. Instead, pull out the challenge to be solved and make that the focus. Invite people to address that challenge together.
  • Go around the rocks: Even if something is a great idea or helps a team achieve their goals, don’t waste your time fighting against entrenched obstacles, mindsets or behaviours. Work with people and help them engage in the changes that are possible in the here and now.
  • Pay attention to timing and rhythm: Recognize whether it’s better to pursue a change or when to take a step back and let things run independently. Are people open to a new way of working, or is delivering a critical project the only thing on their minds?
  • Maintain a regular practice of reflection and improvement: Making any shift will be challenging for a team that never changes. At the team level, run regular retrospectives and focus them on capturing the smaller, achievable improvements a team can make. Help make change a habit.
  • Reduce the batch size of change: If a proposed change affects multiple groups and requires coordinating people, pause. Try to break it down into smaller and simpler units. What could you do differently this afternoon and see some results by tomorrow?


Being successful in helping nudge a system is a lot about picking up cues and following your gut. When I see something that feels funny or off, instead of pointing out a problem, I try to be curious and ask a question. What I often hear from people is, “You know, I had the same question.” Other times I might hear two people on different teams mention the same problem, and I’ll ask, “Did you know that person’s also dealing with this issue?” Sometimes these simple questions create the opportunity for people to engage in an improvement process that didn’t exist before.

I hope these tips will help you find the sweet spots where you can make a difference.

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