Issue 63

Agile and change management

Dan Suciu
Lecturer, PhD @ Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Science, UBB

"The illiterate of the future will not be those who cannot read, but those who cannot learn, thise who cannot un-learn and re-learn." - Alvin Tofller

Change represents the focal point of various studies, books, articles and conferences from all fields of inquiry. Undoubtedly, our personal and professional life is more dynamic than ever, being filled with unforeseeable challenges day by day. The world around us changes at a high rate as part of (mega)- and (mini) revolutions across several walks of life.

Agile is also about change, more precisely about the changes that teams have to deal with. Agile values and principles focus on the benefits and speed of change. Agile represents a major change, both for the teams which want to implement a particular Agile methodology and for the ones which are constantly evolving.

Nevertheless, when a team adopts an Agile methodology, the process is not as easy as it seems (being influenced by various promo materials). The current article seeks to analyze the problems which can arise in the process and the means to avoid failure.

Logical levels for learning and ... change

More than 45 years ago, Gregory Bateson, a renowned anthropologist, described the logical levels for learning which are particular to human nature, in his book "Steps to an Ecology of Mind". Later on, Robert Dilts (one of the most important promoters of neurolinguistic programming) took on this idea and turne dit into a successful tool for coaching, known today as Dilts' pyramid.

In a nutshell, Dilts' pyramid represents sequence of levels which a human being goes through when learning a concept, a process or a new field of inquiry.

The first level is represented by the environment or the context. At this level, we establish the first contact with what we want to learn and it is the place where we learn a series of new information, mostly basic information, which help us perform space and time orientation. The next level is all about learning a behaviour when using the newly found information. Once we understand, accept, acquire and repeat this behavior, we develop abilities, skills and sometimes reflexes. This is how information and behavior become a part of who we are, like a second nature, which helps us later refined the value set which motivates us or which influences our beliefs in a decisive way. This way, we change our perception of ourselves and we get an "updated" version of our own identity. Moving on to the next level, we try to transcend the things which exist outside our own being. This level represents the vision (other approaches call it purpose or spirituality) enabling us to perfect ourselves, to revolutionize and to transfer what we have learned.

What is interesting about these levels is that they cannot be "skipped" or avoided as part of the learning process. For example, you cannot skip the "ability and identity" level without going through the previous levels. It is true that there are factors (innate or acquired) which can shorten (or lengthen) the time spent on a particular level, but the levels themselves are not completely eliminated.

Moreover, in many situations, we get stuck on one level and we end up at the last level in exceptional situations. The fact that, at one point, as part of the learning cycle of a new concept/process/field, we find ourselves at a particular level in Dilts pyramid, does not guarantee that we can move on to the next level.

A useful exercise to "test" Dilts' pyramid is to identify the level where you are in terms of your journey to consciously learn something. A good example might be learning how to drive or learning how to play the piano.

For the first case, the levels could be:

For the second case, the levels could be:

To simplify this picture, these are the questions each level must provide an answer for:

Dilts' pyramid can be looked at from a reversed angle too, giving it a more meaningful role. The elements of each level have a (decisive) influence on inferior levels (Figure 2). From this perspective, a vision can bring about transformation at the identity level, which can then propagate to the beliefs&values level, which can propagate higher and influence abilities, behavior and the environment. Seen from this angle, Dilts' pyramid describes the logical levels of change and shows that a major change from one level to the next can be generated only if there is a trigger on a higher level. If "going from bottom to top", the road can sometimes stop based on several factors, "going from top to bottom" is a complete process, and the influence of one level on inferior levels is straightforward. Dilts goes even further and states that there cannot be a relevant change on one level, without a change on one of the superior levels.

What is really interesting is the sequence of the learn-change cycles as modelled by Dilts' pyramid: When learning we can change our beliefs, identity and vision considerably, so that later on our abilities and behavior can change too, which may lead to a new level of evolution.

When climbing the pyramid bottom to top we talk about evolution, when the path is reversed we talk about a revolution which can lead to further personal change.

Traps when adopting Agile

It is natural for every learning activity (reading, lecture, training) to stop somewhere at the first two levels. Getting to the upper levels largely depends on a number of other factors (several of them personal in nature).

When a team transitions to a methodology, this is a learning activity and it follows the level sequence in Dilts' pyramid. Obviously, each team member can find themselves at different levels in the pyramid, but even if this helps sometimes, it is not a decisive factor for the evolution of the other team members. Each individual must go through these levels on their own and there are no shortcuts to the process.

The road from "doing Agile" to "being Agile" is cumbersome and lengthy. The mere stating of the Agile principles and values, for instance, does not guarantee immediate adhesion. Time is needed for the team members to understand the true meaning of the new practices and to adapt them to a specific context.

Following this road (the one with a ,,being Agile" target) there are traps which can block the team on a particular level. Focusing on finding best practices and applying them automatically in projects is a trap which gets the team stuck at a behavior level. Another trap would be the team's ability to adapt, which prevents the team from growing and evolving. Last but not least, the tendency a team may have to adopt a complex solution to solve a project can lead to blockage at the level of beliefs.

However, the biggest trap lies in the way companies, coaching companies, trainers and authors promote Agile methodologies. The current promotion strategy gives off the impression that this methodology is easy to learn and adopt, that you can become a true ScrumMaster or Product Owner (even a certified one) after only two days of learning/training, that a group of people can become a self-organizing team at the snap of fingers by simply following some procedures/processes etc. .

Dilts' pyramid shows us not only that such expectations are unrealistic, but that they may lead to the wrong types of beliefs or to a team spirit which can affect its future evolution negatively.


When I first heard about Dilts' pyramid, I was skeptical about it because I believed it was too general. I have recently become less confident in using tools which are generally valid, because I believe that each situation can have only a particular solution, specific to the context which generated it, by intelligently adapting the knowledge we hold. I do not believe in "silver bullets" which can solve any problem.

Dilts' pyramid seems to balance general applicability with usefulness. I was surprised to find this model in other theories too which managed to integrate it:

Therefore, Dilts' pyramid is a fascinating tool to explain, and predict evolution and revolution. As far as Agile is concerned, we notice that Agile these cycles succeed each other very quickly being a meta-trigger for going through all pyramid levels.


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