• Lean Change Management

Lean Change Management — What is the Secret Sauce?

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Lean Change Management — What is the Secret Sauce?

Main Takeaways
Reading Time: 8 minutes Lean Change Management is based on the metaphor that any change initiative can be thought of as a startup. People affected by change become involved and accountable by co-creating the change. Short and closed feedback loops transfer the reaction of the people involved to continuously adapt the course of change. Borrowing many principles and techniques from the Lean Startup method (Eric Ries) and Lean Stack Machine (Ash Maurya), change agents are able to keep the change plan and model up-to-date by incorporating the latest learnings obtained from the reactions on the work floors.

Why Do We Need a New Organisational Change Management?

For over half a century, organisational change management exists as a discipline for its own, lectured at any business school. Albeit, these change approaches have their tremendous drawbacks. John Kotter, Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School stated that 70-80% of all organisational change initiatives fail: people react with resistance and denial, nor the change is sustainable. After a certain time, people return to the old status quo.1
What are the characteristics of these approaches and why do they imply these weaknesses? Here a list of in my opinion the most prominent ones (the order does not imply any prioritisation).

  • Change is run as a Blame Game. — The traditional approaches are “deficit-based”: they identify problems, they analyze what’s wrong and how to fix it, they plan, and then take corrective actions.
  • Business change narratives do not bridge the motivation gap between leaders and employees. — Either what kind of business narrative most organisations consistently tell as change stories, what the managers care about does not tap into roughly 80% of the employee’s primary motivators for putting extra energy into the change program. Align management goals and motivations with the employees. 2
  • Insufficient Involvement of the People Affected. — Any change story told by change leaders has to cover all aspects to motivate the workforce. But there is has much more impact, to let the employees tell the story. Treat people as Adults!
  • Traditional Change is rolled out in a Big-Bang approach. — Conventional change approaches often start from a pre-existing change solution based on a particular problem set and business domain requirements typically specified by the executives of the organisation. The change itself is implemented by a Big Bang roll-out, using upfront design, and static plans.
  • Change is Disruptive. — Change can have a tremendous effect on the person asking to change. Change always disrupts the status quo.
  • Change has no Start and End Points. — Traditional change initiatives realise change as a kind of project with definite start and endpoints. They are plan-driven and revolutionary: at their end is the final roll-out (big bang). They assume change can be controlled and managed with upfront planning. But change never stops. Change is continuous. Change is evolution. Change is life.
  • Paradox of Change. — The less mature an organisation is, the deeper its performance drop will be once the change starts. Paradoxically, the less mature the organisation is, the less tolerant the organisation will be for this performance drop. This “paradox of change” almost guarantees that any organisation that requires a Big Change will not be able to successfully execute on that change and will end in suboptimal outcomes.

For more details on this topic see my blog post "Pitfalls of traditional organisational change management".

There is an alternative: Lean Change Management.

Lean Change Management Basics

Jeff Anderson and Alexis Hui (both Deloitte LEAN) started Lean Change Management in 2010 as antithesis to conventional change management approaches. In 2012 Jason Little joined the Lean Change community and published his variant of the framework.

Lean Change Management is an iterative and incremental, evolutionary, and empirical method for organisational change management.

Secret Sauce Receipt:

  • Lean Change Management is based on the metaphor that any change initiative can be thought of as a startup.
  • People affected by change become involved and accountable by co-creating the change.
  • Short and closed feedback loops transfer the reaction of the people involved to continuously adapt the course of change.
  • Borrowing many principles and techniques from the Lean Startup method (Eric Ries 2011) and Lean Stack Machine (Ash Maurya 2012), change agents are able to keep the change plan and model up-to-date by incorporating the latest learnings obtained from the reactions on the work floors.

Lean Change Management is based on the following principles.

Lean Change Management Principles

  • People and organistions are complex, adaptive, non-deterministic systems. You can't control them. You can only guess and assume how the system may react and adapt to change.
  • Focus on people's reaction to change, rather than manage the change.
  • Lean Change Management is feedback-driven, not plan-driven.
  • Have a big picture — vision, idea, plan. But deliver change in small batches only. — Think small.
  • Lean change managemenet is an evolutionary approach, rather than of the revolutionary big-bang of conventional planned change roll-outs.
  • Run experiments instead performing change activities.
  • Co-create change with the people affected, not consult them in the change.
  • Lean change focuses on enabling learning through speed and self-organisation, rather than on efficiency through specialisation and command-n-control.

The Lean Change Management Cycle

Lean Change Management extends the Kotter change model with the Build–Measure–Learn cycle of lean thinking. This allows change agents to take advantage of concepts like feedback, continuous improvement, pivoting change and validated learning.

Build Measure Learn Cycle

Build Measure Learn Cycle

The Lean Change Management cycle consists of two loops. In the main loop, we gather insights about the needs to change, potential options to apply the change (application areas and the change recipients, i.e. people who change). And we set up to roll out smallest increments of possible changes that will enable learning to understand the viability of the change, so-called Minimum Viable Changes (MVC).

In the sub-loop we and the with the selected target group negotiate the MVC (impact), create and develop, we probe it and gets further insights by continuous learning and measuring success or failure. The sub-loop we might run through multiple times up to a (pre-)defined limit. In reviewing our data we decide about success or flop, about continuing, stopping or pivoting the change.

Lean Change Management Cycle

Lean Change Management Cycle

Insights. – Understand the problem space (what is the problem, what is the problem of the problem; who benefits from change).
Build hypotheses due to subject interpretation.

Options. – Identify areas of potential changes, based on the hypotheses; clustered by effort-value ratio.

Minimum Viable Change (MVC) / Experiments. – Generate from options the smallest applicable change, MVC.
Perturb the organisation by running the MVC as an experiment and validate/falsify your hypothesis.

The sub-loop for running experiments:

Prepare. – This is the planning stage of your Experiment. Slice the MVC in as small as possible but still working parts. Build a hypothesis for start/end state. Define measures for the end state.

Introduce. – Implement a part of the MVC. You start working with people affected by the change.

Review. – Validate and adjust the hypothesis by the measurement results. Here you review the outcomes of the Experiment. Normally you do this after the amount of time you thought you would need for the change to stick.
Repeat the sub-loop until the MVC is completely implemented. Start the Lean Change Cycle next round with the new insights.

Negotiated Change

Negotiated Change is a central concept in Jeff Andersons Lean Change Management. If the organisation communicates the need for change properly – addressing Why? and the aforementioned different levels of impact the change might have –change agents can then negotiate various dimensions of a change with the people being affected.

When change agents and people involved by the change negotiate about impact, measurements, ways to realisation, and success criteria of the change, the recipients of any change become co-authors and co-implementers of all aspects of the change. Negotiated Change transforms change recipients to change co-creators. Those that feel that their intentions are heard become over time true change participants and change owners. These empowered people will keep the change initiative on track.

In Lean Change Management there is no equivalent to a traditional roll-out procedure for change. Since the change implementation is always designed for a specific field of application (department, team, group) we can not easily "carry it over" to another - even - similar application. However, progress can be measured and communicated by the short-term wins. It is the imperative of the organisation to communicate and to celebrate any wins that result from successful change implementation. Spread the news about the success and people from other areas will come to adapt your change in their domain. Empowered people will act by themselves, but it is the mandate of the organisation to support them in their new adaption.

Validated Learning

Validated learning is a core concept in the Lean Startup method.3 In Lean Change Management validated learning is the progress made when assumptions have been confirmed or rejected by subjecting each assumption to change participants experiments.

In Lean Change validated learning had to come from all people affected by the change, not the change agents only. Validated learning can't happen without successfully implemented negotiated change, i.e. co-creating the change.

Lean Change Management advocates that any change plan has to be described as a set of assumptions and that the change agents, change stakeholders and change recipients are responsible for validating those assumptions using explicit hypotheses. Validated learning is learning from data measured in experiments. It supports the notion of deliberate change planning without falling into the trap of a fixed upfront design.

Validated learning is an empirical approach. It is evolutionary. By this, organisational leaders can implement a deliberate change, without locking them into a particular approach up front.

Minimum Viable Change

Neither is a Minimum Viable Change (MVC) the final change with all the features full-fledged implemented. Nor does minimum implies small, little, tiny. – It may take some time to develop an MVC before you can probe it. The MVC is the change with the highest return on investment versus risk. It has just those core features that allow the change to be deployed and to be used by the selected target group and nothing more.

A Minimum Viable Change (MVC) is the smallest possible change that will enable learning necessary to understand the viability of the overall change program.

Jeff Anderson, 2013.

Guidelines To Size an MVC

  • Stripping down target options to one or two interrelated topics.
  • Focusing on the needs of a smaller group of highly integrated change participants.
  • Reducing the scale of anticipated benefits to something tangible and pragmatic.
  • Constraining the required commitments to how much time change participants actually have the capacity for (often less than you want or think).
  • Focusing on countermeasures for one core problem listed in the urgency section.
  • Limiting external change agent actions to one explicit tactic (i.e. coaching only).
  • Keeping the duration of the entire change to less than one month.
  • Limiting the number of improvement experiments for the change to less than eight.

Jeff Anderson, 2013.


The scientific method states, that to validate assumptions we have to create hypotheses which shall be probed by falsifiable experiments (written as statements that can be clearly proven wrong). Experiments are time-boxed – they will end in a pre-defined time. Creating experiments follow a certain process:

  1. state a hypothesis,
  2. develop a proving test environment for the hypothesis,
  3. run the experiment for a certain time frame,
  4. measure and collect data from running tests,
  5. learn by interpreting the data,
  6. rephrase the hypothesis and start a new experiment,  if needed.

Below you find an example of a  hypothesis pattern:

 "If we do X, we expect the result Y having the impact Z"

We hypothesise by <implementing change C> that
we will <solve problem P>,
which will have <benefits Bi>,
as measured by <measurement Mi>
with success criteria <SCi>

Following my colleague Luis Goncalves, experiments can be viewed from two levels. From a design perspective:

  • 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?

Implement the change by improvement experiments to validate that the change is viable. Since organisations, departments, and teams are adaptive systems, any experiment successfully adopted will itself change the system. This new landscape provides us with the canvas to further experiment.

Further Readings

Lean Change

Lean Startup

  • Ash Maurya: Running Lean. Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works. O'Reilly and Associates, 2012.
  • Eric Ries: The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses. Crown Business, 2011.

: Jason Little, .

  1. John Kotter stated this in his book "Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail" published in 1995. In 2007 Harvard Business Review published the equivocal article. For a discussion on the viability of this number see my blog post "Pitfalls of traditional organisational change management"

  2. For this see Carolyn Aiken, Scott Keller: The irrational side of change management. McKinsey Quarterly, April 2009. Google showed in their the two famous studies Project Aristotle and Project Oxygen how important for team effectiveness is the motivational alignment of both, team and management level — and how they differ tremendously in Google company culture from traditional business school thinking. See also my blog posts on Psychological Safety

  3. Eric Ries describes validated learning as the progress made when assumption have been confirmed or rejected by subjecting each assumption to one or more customer validation test, Ries 2011. 

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