How to Change Other People

The hardest part of becoming Agile is changing the behavior of other people. (At least, that’s what people keep telling me.) Because, even when people do want to be Agile themselves, their organizations (the systems around the people) don’t always co-operate. How do you “make” top management more Agile? How can you convince other developers to better educate themselves? And how can you steer customers so they accept Agile practices and sign Agile contracts?

Start reading

I’ve realized that it all comes down to change management and, luckily, there are lots of books available on this topic. Switch, Fearless Change, Leading Change, Influencer, and many more have pages full of useful advice for change agents. The downside? Although most of these books are very good and can be of great help, they all tend to paint rather simplistic pictures of change in social systems.

The complexity of real life

Simple models, supported with convincing and inspiring stories, are good to get you started with the basics of change management. But the real world is far more complex than what most models seem to assume. As complexity thinkers, we need a more holistic approach to organizational change. We need a way to understand how to address the whole system in order to change it. And not just some highlighted parts of it.

The trick, as with all the behavioral possibilities of complex systems, is to recognize what structures contain which latent behaviors, and what conditions release those behaviors – and, where possible, to arrange the structures and conditions to reduce the probability of destructive behaviors and to encourage the possibility of beneficial ones.

– Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems

A word to the wise

Some people say, “You cannot make people behave differently”. True. But at the same time we can’t really “make someone laugh” or “make someone happy”, can we? But the least we can do is try. That is what Change Management 3.0 is all about: give it your best shot and, whenever you can, make that shot a bit more than just an educated guess.


Ale2011 The Change Management 3.0 model worked when I wanted Agile & Lean practitioners throughout Europe to work closer together. Although many said it couldn’t be done because cultural and geographical differences were too big, I thought the least I could do is to give it a try.

While I’m writing this, forty people from sixteen different countries are busy organizing a conference together.

I will write more about Change Management 3.0 in subsequent blog posts. Or… you can choose to attend one of my classes.

Related Posts
free book
“How to Change the World”
  • Chris Matts

    Hi Jurgen
    I’m slightly uncomfortable with trying to change other people’s behaviour. It’s a bit like the cultural imperialism of Agile that says you have to change the culture to make Agile work.
    In fact, what we want to do is change the environment so that “bad” behaviour is unacceptable. Normally, this is because people do not realise that their behaviour is “bad”. In fact, most people who are exhibiting “bad” behaviour are doing so in an attempt to achieve something positive. As an example, I joined a project and lets call the person Bob was hailed as a hero. They had saved the project during the UAT and averted a disasterous production release. In fact Bob should have engaged at the very start of project. Once we let people know that “Saving” a project in UAT was in conflict to the goals of the project, Bob made sure he engaged earlier. The problem was the project rewarded the “bad” behaviour and encouraged it. To change the behaviour, we had to change the rewards.
    I’m rubbish at this though so do not ask me how to do it. 🙂
    Love the article and what you are doing with ALE.

  • Jurgen Appelo

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for the feedback. Note that this article simply starts with the question that people are often asking, which is “How do I change other people’s behavior?”
    I totally agree that, in order to achieve this, most of the time they will either have to change the environment or their own behavior. 🙂
    So, though the question is simple, the answer is rather complex.
    Watch this space, there’s more to come…

  • Patrick

    Looking forward to read about your opinions on this. Change is what drives managers at organizations mad at times. And then I mean the ability to “make” people change, which is quite impossible in a command and control environment if you ask me. You twittered about “fun” today, which I think is an important ingredient. But I too prefer to think holistically and thus my opinion is that more ingredients are needed like “importance” and “urgency” and “other people doing it”. Most of this stuff can be found in the books you mention and still it gets very little attention in change programs, which are often organized around tools and methods. I prefer to add the great writings of people like Dale Carnegie and Napoleon Hill to any change approach. They speak of the powerful concept of “desire”.
    Once again, looking forward to see you writing more on this.

  • Radu Davidescu

    it could look a bit more philosophical, but changing other people with strategies and arguments implies standing in an opposite position. that’s bad for relations inside the changing process.
    instead it’s always useful to start with the following question:
    “what can I change about me that will make other people change the way I like?”
    this is a very good exercise, because between you and your desire to change yourself should be anything. or is it?!
    this idea is not an original one, it’s inspired from the Peter Block’s book “the answer to how is yes” –

  • Michael Leber

    Hi Jurgen,
    I guess when talking about changing others, we are once and even more not
    talking about any kind of force, but rather stimulating a complex system,
    basically requiring leadership and clarity about positions (from adopters to
    late / never followers) – leadership is required to switch in-between
    changing frontiers of those positions.
    When “making” someone do or feel something we are also not in direct control.
    We have a chance to connect, stimulate and even influence – and that’s, what
    I think changing others is all about.
    Absolutely like to follow and discuss your stimulating ideas.

  • CansThings

    This changing frontiers may be alright in hieararchy settings, but seems to lack generality on other types. How would you lead if there is no authority beyond you and your team member?
    For example how would you lead a resistant, if that’s to say your business partner? Clarifying objectives maybe?

How to Change the World - free Workout - free