7 “Easy” Steps For Convincing Senior Management to Support a Hard Change

Puzzled manager

We’re often asked how do you convince senior management to accept new agile ideas and strategies.  Examples of such ideas include:

Why is This Important?

There are three reasons why it’s important for agile coaches, and Team Leads/ScrumMasters for that matter, to know how to convince senior management to support new ways of working:

  1. You need their support.  There are many aspects of an agile transformation that an agile coach doesn’t have the authority nor the resources to change.  As a result you need to collaborate with others and very often earn the support of the people who do have the authority and resources.
  2. Agile transformations are complex.  Agile transformations are about more than just transforming software development teams.  The 2016 Agility at Scale study found that 96% of agile teams need to collaborate with other teams external to them to get their job done.  The implication is that these other teams that they are collaborating with – including your business stakeholders, governance team, data management, internal audit, security group, and many others – need to at least be able to interact with your agile teams in a reasonably flexible manner if not work agilely themselves.
  3. Agile transformations are fragile.  If you want to transform your IT department, and more importantly your organization, then you’ll need to transform all aspects of the department/organization.  All it takes is one or more groups to refuse to work in an agile manner and suddenly your transformation is at risk.  The implication is that you need to get good at convincing others to support your efforts if not change themselves.

Why is This So Hard?

There are many reasons why senior management may be reticent to consider this change that you believe to be very important:

  • They have other priorities that you may not be aware of.
  • They have many other issues to deal with, this is just one of them.
  • They may be very happy with the status quo and don’t recognize the problem.
  • There are other people advising the exact opposite.
  • There are people who are entrenched in the existing way of working, and that may include senior management.
  • They will need to convince their peers regarding the benefits of the change and they may not know enough to be able to do so, or may not have the political capital to effect the change.
  • Change can be disruptive and it may jeopardize their existing commitments which incidentally might be tied to their compensation plan.
  • The manager realizes that this change has greater ramifications than you may believe.

The Seven “Easy” Steps For Convincing Someone to Support Change

Here is an approach that we’ve had work in practice for us.  You will very likely need to work through all of these steps, pretty much in order, to be successful.  These steps are:

  1. Pick your battles wisely.  Ask yourself whether this issue is the most important thing that you need help with from this person.  There will be only so much willingness to invest time and effort in supporting the changes that you believe to be made, and not all requests are going to be supported.  As Rod Bray, CDAC, likes to say: “Choose the hill that you’re willing to die on.”
  2. Know the topic and the language around it.  Chances are that you will need to be able to explain whatever it is that you’re asking for help on, what the trade-offs are, why its better than the current approach, and what the impact of the change will be.  To do this you will need to understand the trade-offs are of the current approach and understand the issues and language of the topic.  For example, if you’re asking for help to change the way that IT projects are funded, are you able to speak intelligently about the existing annual-based budgeting process, project-based funding, and perhaps even the implications of CAPEX/OPEX?  Or, if you’re asking to improve the current approach to IT governance, do you understand the existing governance process, what it’s trade-offs are, and what the potential impacts of applying traditional governance to agile teams may be?  If you don’t have this fundamental understanding of the topic then you will very quickly sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about, so why would management want to support you?
  3. Plan the conversation.  Although you very likely have some very great ideas, if you spring them on others they will very likely be threatened by them at first (human beings are psychologically wired to treat surprises as threats).  A better approach is to first ask permission to discuss a new idea that you have, and even share an overview of the idea beforehand so that they can think about it a bit, before you get together to seek their support.
  4. Explore their concerns.  Once you’ve pitched your idea to them they will very likely want to discuss the trade-offs with you, in particular the impact on other groups and the time and effort required to support your change.  The implication is that part of your preparation before you make your pitch should be to think about what concerns they may have with your suggested approach so that you have arguments to counteract any concerns.
  5. Ask them to share their actual experiences.  It is very common for people to become attached to ineffective ways of working.  This sounds strange on the surface, but people are like this.  Whenever we run into someone who believes in a strategy that we know to be ineffective – fixed price funding, documentation-based governance, detailed up-front modeling, significant amounts of manual testing to name a few – we ask them how well it’s working for them in practice.  Very often they’ll tell you about the positives, but if you know the topic (and better yet the history of that strategy within your organization) then you can start exploring the negative aspects with them too.  It’s particularly useful to be able to bring up several past projects where that strategy was applied yet it didn’t work out so well in practice. The point is to help them to recognize that their favored strategy isn’t working as well as they’d like, and that there is a need to rethink your current approach.
  6. Educate them.  Walk them through the trade-offs, both good and bad, of your suggested approach.  Be prepared to discuss the trade-offs of the current strategy, and in particular relate those trade-offs back to the experiences that they just told you about.  You may often discover that they didn’t realize that there are other options available to them and that they’ve been ignoring the problems with their existing approach.  Help them to understand that they have a better choice available to them.
  7. Convince them to run a small experiment.  Making a large, whole-scale change is scary.  If the new approach doesn’t work out then you’ve got a serious problem to deal with and the manager who sponsored the change may be punished for it.  But, running a small, contained experiment to see if the new strategy works in your environment isn’t very threatening and better yet is a fundamental risk management strategy.  So start small, get a visible win, learn from the experiment, and the roll out the change more widely.  It is important that you “negotiate” the changes as they will be more likely to try it if you let them know that the change is an experiment and they will have the opportunity to revert back if the expected benefits do not materialize.  Note that some organizations are leery of running “experiments” but are very willing to run “proof of concepts (PoCs)” – go with the terminology that works in your organization.

We wish that we could tell you that we’ve had a 100% success rate with this strategy.  Sadly we haven’t.  We have done very well with this, but sometimes it doesn’t always work out the first time.  Or the second time, and sadly sometimes not even the third time.  Your goal should be to get them thinking about new ways of working and to give them the time that they need to decide to support you.

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