The challenge of changing ‘traditional’ mindsets

By The App Business under Insights, Agile 22 September 2015

In the course of our work, we are often asked how we can help our clients drive greater understanding and awareness of agility within their companies - especially for those who are used to following more traditional waterfall methodologies. After years of following a particular approach, these legacy ways of working become entrenched, and changing them can feel impossible.

The urgent need for that change to occur, however, is felt by many of the companies we meet. Everywhere we look, new user behaviours and new technology are overturning industries, introducing new value and new players at a blinding speed. For most organisations with more traditional modes of working, keeping up - let alone getting ahead - is a business-critical concern.

So what holds companies back from making the shift toward agile? Within any organisation, ‘radical’ change is seen as a big ask in terms of culture, time and resource - not to mention risk. This can produce a lot of resistance internally to adopting agile approaches, so how can you set about convincing those with more traditional mindsets to move towards agile practices?

In truth, there’s no single or simple answer to this question, but as TAB’s QA Manager and a proponent of agile practices, here’s my take on it.

Change happens

Change is a scary thing - especially when we are used to a particular way of working. Familiarity with a legacy process can make it seem like the logical and reliable choice - even if it no longer delivers acceptable results.

The reality, though, is that change is inevitable and learning to embrace change and being open to possibilities is both healthy and an urgent necessity. Without innovation, without development and without change, companies would ultimately stagnate and would never survive, let alone grow.

There is no doubt that in the course of driving change and big transitions, you can set off a whirlwind of questions and difficult conversations. This is doubly true when there are key stakeholders whom you need to convince that the much needed change does need to occur. For me, success therefore comes down to three key things that are vital to help drive greater agility in process and mindsets - value, trust and time.

Value: the proof of concept

People tend to underestimate how powerful and relevant examples can be. I have always found that a proof of concept plants the seed of understanding and appreciation much more effectively than a report or a presentation. This is one reason why at TAB we aim to get prototypes built as quickly as possible. Showing output and value through tangible examples is your secret weapon when it comes to changing mindsets.

Most of the time - and I hear this often - people don’t want to be talked ‘at’ about the theory of agile transformation: people want to experience the value in that change. Therefore, being able to showcase small changes, such as a collaborative team workflow, a low fidelity prototype, or incremental improvement in a new tool, is far more useful than explaining the positives and negatives in a Powerpoint presentation.

(Sometimes, and this is between you and me, it even means having to break the rules - just a little; after all, it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission).

Trust: collaborating and building relationships

I find that one of the most valuable tenets of Agile is that of collaboration and relationship building. We all know that without vision, business goals and requirements, we can’t move forward. So continuous collaboration, ensuring that key stakeholders are involved in helping make those decisions - and understanding the reasons and value of them - helps build a solid foundation for agile transformation.

Collaboration leads to trust, and trust is really the key factor. Without trust, you can find yourself up against a brick wall that becomes harder and harder to break down. So when it comes to people and relationships, remember to start slowly, invest your time in communicating frequently and openly - keep feedback loops short, and bring people with you on the journey to foster ownership and understanding.

Time: change doesn’t happen overnight

At the end of the day, cultural change does take time. As human beings, we need time to adjust. This is true of any new idea, concept or in the case of more agile ways of working, behaviours. We need to understand how we adapt to change, and understand whether a team or company has the skills to make those changes stick.

The idea that change takes time seems, to some people, to fly in the face of what agile promises. Particularly in the disruptive context many organisations find themselves. Changing mindsets is often slow, and very hard work - many client-side teams become disillusioned, expecting results, like increased speed, to happen overnight.

Agile transformation will allow teams to work leaner and more efficiently - one benefit of which is speed - but only when it’s properly understood and is beginning to gain traction. Remember, putting up a scrum board doesn’t mean you are agile - yet.

Only over time can we see how changes impact us, whether that’s in a positive or negative way. It’s important to pace yourself when thinking about agile transformation. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to change everything at once, and becoming disheartened when that inevitably fails.

It is crucial to start small and accept that sometimes, you need to go slow to go fast. Incremental change, a steady pace and the right timing can be crucial to developing people’s understanding and ability to see the positive outcomes agile practices can achieve, and build the trust we need to plough forward.

Don’t forget to inspect and adapt

It’s no easy task to change people’s mindsets and implement new ways of working. When things get tough, some people find themselves thinking, ‘...wouldn’t it just be easier to do it the way we did it before?’ Some will even question where the value is in the short term - but it is critical to remember that the real value is ultimately experienced in the long run.

The most successful agile transformation results require persistence, and continuously learning as you go. Every small change you implement, you should inspect, test and then adapt: did it work, and what adjustments can you make to improve the next time? Sooner than you think, you will begin to break down the walls of resistance, get people on board and set up the foundations for future development and growth.
Interested in continuing the discussion around changing mindsets, business transformation or agile ways of working? Tweet me @ctohanian or drop me an email at