Why Lean Change Management is different

“I know that a traditional change programme approach will ultimately hit a brick wall but I’m fighting a losing battle.”

A quote from the leader of a transformation programme at a major media company. Does it sound familiar?

Many change leaders know that a plan-driven approach transformation is destined to hit the rocks, but don’t have a good sense of what the alternative might be. Enter Lean Change Management, the approach originally developed by Jason Little. Reading his excellent book “Lean Change Management” transformed my approach to change leadership and gave me a framework for organising change initiatives along Lean/Agile lines.

Lean Change Management puts co-creation and experimentation at the heart of the approach. If that sounds interesting, read on.

So how is it different?

Lean Change differs from traditional approaches in 5 major ways.

1. People-first, not process-first

In many of the traditional change methods, we place a major emphasis on process. The famous John Kotter gave us 8 steps to follow. The issue with this and other approaches is the emphasis on a sequence of ‘best practice’ activities.

With Lean Change Management, we provide a loosely defined framework to design and manage a set of experiments directed towards an overall vision. The key principle is to co-create change with the people affected, in whichever manner and sequence makes sense in context.

2. Co-creation not consultation

In traditional change programmes, the central ‘engine’ is a change team. They interview those affected, create change readiness assessments, design new processes, construct communication plans and so on. When they take your views, they analyse, synthesise and consolidate these inputs into ‘programme documentation’. When the change managers present this to people it can often feel abstract and people feel only somewhat engaged in the initiative.

In the Lean Change paradigm, change agents and those affected co-design the change initiative together as a set of experiments.

3. Experiments not change activities

In traditional change programmes, the main currency is change activities. Activities broken down into tasks on a plan. The team must do interviews, workshops, presentations, skills assessment and so on.

In Lean Change Management, the main currency is experiments. From a design perspective, we consider:

  • Which type of experiment?
  • Who with?
  • How to prepare?

From a management perspective:

  • What’s the maximum number of experiments we can execute at once?
  • Which ones failed?
  • Which succeeded?
  • What did we learn?

We also acknowledge that any experiment successfully adopted will itself change the environment. This new landscape in turn provides us with the canvas to further experiment.

4. Feedback-driven not plan-driven

In traditional change, the change team carefully craft a set of dependent change activities; all laid out on a plan, with a defined start and end point. A lot of effort is spent maintaining that plan and tracking variance. There are three major risks in this approach.

Risk 1: Responsiveness

When being driven by a plan, the change initiative itself is much less responsive. Changing the direction of the change effort itself becomes much more expensive in traditional approaches. As the effort continues, it becomes increasingly hard to course-correct as the environment changes or underlying assumptions prove to be invalid.

By contrast, feedback from experiments drives Lean Change initiatives, with a strong focus on giving those affected a strong voice. This means people at any level of the hierarchy can feedback and directly influence the next experiments for the team to conduct.

Crucially, lean change agents design the initiative such that it can be highly responsive to this feedback. Using kanban-style flow-based management of the change effort, the team can course-correct easily in response to feedback.

Risk 2: Horse before cart

The second risk of a plan-driven approach relates to Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. The law states the following:

“In any bureaucracy, the people devoted to [] the bureaucracy itself always get in control and those dedicated to the [authentic] goals [] have less and less influence…”


When we orchestrate change using traditional methods, we typically create a central function to plan and coordinate. By doing so, we create a greater risk of the Iron Law asserting itself. Namely, the risk that the planning functionaries become more powerful that those authentically committed to achieving change.

Risk 3: Self-fulfilling illusions

The final risk is that when we create large, centrally-managed programmes of change, we put many professional reputations at stake. In such a situation, the people around the change team adapt to provide the illusion that change is happening. Those in charge of the programme see want they want to see and those affected tell them want they want to hear.

As Lean Change Agents, we use a lightweight approach to planning and commit ourselves to rapid ‘feedback-and-respond’ cycles to stay close to reality.

5. “Catch the wave” don’t “initiate and drive”

The fifth and final differentiator of Lean Change lies in the fundamental premise of how change happens. In traditional approaches, people believe that change happens when senior authority figures lead people to a new way of operating. The Lean Change approach sees change as a social movement; a viral effect ignited by leaders potentially anywhere in the organisation.

The basic paradigm for traditional change programmes goes something like:

  1. Senior executive identifies an issue or set of issues.
  2. Senior executive secures budget and resources to ‘implement change’.
  3. Change team create vision, scope and plan to drive through the changes.

Change as a social movement

Lean Change turns the paradigm of centrally managed change on its head. In Lean Change, the approach looks more like:

  1. Change agents scan the landscape for emergent responses to issues in the organisation; the ‘loan nuts’ and their ‘first followers’ trying something new.
  2. Change agents work with these activists, or provide spaces for theses activist to emerge. They seek to amplify their impact and accelerate the change through further experimentation.
  3. Senior executive or managers help support experiments that are having beneficial impacts and dampen those taking the organisation in the wrong direction.

Here we see the role of the change agent not principally as a designer and a planner, although this might be part of their job. Rather, we see the change agent as a scanner, an enabler and a protector of disruptors.


In conclusion, Lean Change is a co-creation-led, responsive and experimental approach to change. It sees change as a social movement.

If you’d like to a participate in a two-day Lean Change Agent workshop with Richard, check out our workshops here. For workshops across the globe, click here.