Should We Have a WIP Limit For Organizational Change?


During a recent podcast interview, Russ Pena and I began talking about the impact of change on a product focused organization that is trying to adopt a more agile and innovation-centric mindset.

Our conversation introduced a new topic that has been rattling around in my head since Russ and I spoke. I’m writing this post with the hope that it might generate discussion and help the idea take form.

Talking about the significance of the change is not a new thing. Oceans have been written about how people go through stages of changes, etc. And most of the professional knowledge workers who earn their keep by helping organizations go through agile transformation would probably tell you that the hardest part of the change is almost never the process. Even though many people focus on that, its’ usually the easiest part. The Gordian knot of of transforming to an agile or innovation-centric approach stems from the impact of the cultural change and the shift in value systems.

During the podcast, Russ and I got to talking about how many clients enter into transformation without really knowing what to expect, or  they have some sense of what to expect, but have decided that because their company is “different”, they are going to just throw a switch and change will be adopted throughout every level of the organization out of sheer will.

As we talked through the topic, we started to kick around the idea of coming up with a way to understand the velocity of change the organization was able to absorb, and if so, could we work out a WIP limit for change (or Change in Process limit). While each organization is different, there is going to be a pace at which change can be absorbed, and a tipping point at which it is no longer able to absorb more. When introducing change, a reaction against that change is to be expected. But there is a point at which the strength of the reaction becomes stronger than the driver of the change.

Drawing a parallel to the way a team can only manage a certain amount of work in the system at any given time, an organization may only be able to tolerate a limited amount of change (in various stages) at one time. If that amount is exceeded, and the change becomes too much of an irritant, the organization may resist the change with enough force to cause the change to fail. The question that arose during my discussion with Russ was this;

Can an organization develop an understanding of how much change can be introduced at a given time, without alerting the organizational antibodies who will come to fight off this foreign approach?

For this to be something measurable, we would have to be able to define different changes (or patterns of change) we were going to introduce. We would also need to have a way of weighting them or gauging their potential impact based on both the change being introduced and the specific organization’s likelihood to resist the change.

If we were able to capture all this, it would make sense to try to define a standardized way of assessing an organization’s resistance strength (maybe cultural and/or process fortitude), it’s average reaction time. Or, how quickly does the organization respond with antibodies that will resist the change?

If we had a way of understanding an organization’s cultural and process fortitude, it’s response time, the significance (or weight) of the change being introduced, and some additional metrics or observations on how (in general) organizations begin absorbing and resisting change, then we could arrive at a Change In Process (CIP) limit for introducing transformational changes to an organization.

What are your thoughts on limiting the amount of Change in Process for an organization embarking on their journey with Agile Transformation?

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5 comments on “Should We Have a WIP Limit For Organizational Change?”

  1. Paul Boos

    Glad to see this bouncing around more; I’ve advocated this for years – see

    My follow-up Taking Flight presentation also embeds this concept in it, but states the selected changes should also be synergistic. (It doesn’t do any good to push say certain technical practices for example if a certain level of collaboration is needed to have them work well.)


    • Machiel Groeneveld

      Great input Paul Boos! I’ve never gone into it that thoroughly, but I absolutely agree that there is not just a WIP but also amount of change over time that people can handle. I’ve been in organisations where Scrum came 6 months after the last CMMI project, that was bad timing. Plus some Agile consultants seem to ignore other change programs going on at the same time.
      Some more of my thoughts on this:

  2. Jason Little

    In theory, organizational change WIP limits sounds good, and I love Paul’s slideshare on the topic, although good luck getting normal people, or executives, affected by change to understand any of it!

    The problem, especially with the “go see ADKAR” link posted here, is these ideas assume, or at least imply, that people are progressing through the change at the same rate and intensity and that change happens in phases. It might happen in stages theoretically, but each person, department, system, and organization is going to be in different phases at different times. If we were robots, that might not be the case though.

    Satir theory says the best time to start a new change is when the last change is ‘finished’, but how do you know? The notion of ‘change fatigue’ has been around for ages as well. When the change is ‘done’, you could argue we’ve arrived at the new status quo which is what I believe people mean when they say ‘sustainable change’. Problem is, the org change, or the change experiment that was just marked ‘done’ on the plan is still lingering in the brains of people affected by it.

    Every organization has a natural pace of change, and a certain level of tolerance for disruption. Same goes for every person, at every level. An executive that is biased for action will tend to always use the spaghetti on the wall approach for change, while a more conservative executive will naturally slow the pace down.

    I do talk about these ideas with clients to make them aware of the dynamics, but I’m not sure being explicit about setting WIP limits for change makes sense in the real world.

  3. Michael R. Wolf

    Riffs on Culture Change -> Culture Shock -> Future Shock

    SUMMARY: WIP limits feel like a good idea for continual process improvement

    As I was listening to “Out of Our Minds” by Ken Robinson, he mentioned that “Future Shock” took it’s title from a common social malady called culture shock, in which someone finds themselves disoriented because they don’t understand the new culture’s norms, habits, rituals, language, and shared understanding. People become unrooted.

    “Future Shock” was one of the first books to use the term “information overload”. Ready for a laugh???!!! The book was written in 1970. On a *manual* typewriter. Predating the first IBM PC by 11 years. About 25 years before early adopters heard about the internet.

    If information overload and culture shock can happen too fast, I propose that culture change can also be overwhelming, and that to preserve some kind of stability, should have a WIP limit.

    That’s my opinion for continuous evolution of culture change. I’ll have to think about how disruptive change would change my opinion of how to handle culture change.