Friday, September 10, 2004

Introducing Change in a Resistive Environment

Introducing change into any work environment, no matter how supportive it is of change, can be a difficult prospect. Almost five hundred years ago, Niccolo Machiavelli recognized this when he wrote, "…it is worth noting that nothing is harder to manage, more risky in the undertaking, or more doubtful of success than to set up as the introducer of a new order." He went on to describe people as skeptics, that they "don’t really believe in anything new [until] they have solid experience of it." Resistance will occur, though, and the introducers of change should be prepared for it. Passive resistance can be the worst thing to combat because it is insidious and can be difficult to detect. But resistance isn’t always a bad thing. It encourages a search for alternative, perhaps superior methods to support or supplant the ones originally intended. In any case, taking care to communicate with the people affected by the change, "selling" the problem as it exists as well as the solution proposed, and making sure that those who end up on the losing end of a change have something to look forward to are key issues in creating a successful transition.

The first step in creating a successful transition to a new order is to have a solid understanding of the processes that exist. People sometimes balk at the idea of completely documenting a process that is no longer going to be used, but it is part of a necessary first step. If the architects of the change don’t completely understand what they are changing, they may find themselves fixing one problem and causing a host of others. People who couldn’t articulate all the facets of the job they do at planning time will quickly detect when a change causes problems. Often it is a subconscious understanding of the way they work, developed over years of doing the job that alerts them to the problem. It’s something that they couldn’t see before they found themselves in the position of having to work through all the issues, and many times, by the time they’ve discovered the problems, it’s too late to do anything about them. This is the primary reason that good process documentation, of both the existing and the planned processes, is critical before embarking on a change.

People who have been doing things one way for a long time tend to become comfortable and complacent with their job and are reticent to introduce anything new into their daily routine, especially if it involves letting go of something. And, since most change management comes from outside the work group, they are sure that those making the changes don’t understand what’s going on well enough to decide what to change. In a description of the people of Machiavelli’s time, Robert Adams inadvertently provides a caricature of people who find themselves the subject of outside influences: "They tend to be ironic if not cynical, and rather proud of the fact that nobody likes them—which they take to be evident proof of their superior intelligence." Unfortunately, this caricature applies just as well to those making the changes. William Bridges says that, "to deal successfully with transition, you need to determine precisely what changes in their existing behavior and attitudes people will have to make. … They need to know how teamwork differs behaviorally and attitudinally from the way they are working now. … Until these changes are spelled out, people won’t be able to understand what you tell them." In short, open and complete communication is necessary to make effective changes.

One pitfall that can beset many organizations is the temptation to implement change for the sake of change. Creating change to combat stagnation can be an attractive siren, but things will look different when the entire organization is drowning in expensive new work processes that don’t work any better than the old ones. The old adage of, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it," applies directly here. If the business works well in its current state, and the processes scale well enough to accommodate any increase in business that might happen, then there is likely no need for anything new.

One counterpoint to this is that change combats apathy. Bridges points out that, "people who are sure they have the answers stop asking questions. And people who stop asking questions never challenge the status quo." If the business processes work well, but production is slipping because people are bored with what they do, a small but significant change in the way things are done can have a dramatic effect on people’s attitudes. Sometimes simple things, such as rearranging furniture into a less cellular setting can be enough to encourage change.

Bridges also describes something called "the neutral zone" as the transitional period when old processes are winding down and new ones are ramping up. Management of this "zone," he says, is an important factor in effectively completing a transition.

Per Bridges' description of the neutral zone, several dangers take a variety of forms. They include:

  1. Anxiety rises and motivation falls. People feel disoriented and self-doubting, resentful and self-protective, and energy is drained away from work into coping tactics.
  2. People miss more workdays than at other times. Productivity suffers and medical and disability claims rise sharply.
  3. Old weaknesses, long patched over, reemerge in full flower. Resentments over generous executive severance packages come up again, when everyone’s trust in the organization’s leaders is slipping, and old communication problems that were getting better suddenly get much worse.
  4. With personnel overloaded, signals are often mixed, and systems are in flux and therefore unreliable. Priorities get confused, information gets miscommunicated, and tasks go undone. And, with so many things uncertain and frustrating, turnover begins to rise.
  5. People become naturally divided into two groups; those who want to rush forward with the new change and those who want to go back to the old ways. Consensus breaks down and the level of discord rises.
  6. Lastly, it’s noted that, during a time of change, corporations and other organizations find themselves vulnerable to attack from outside. Disorganized and tired, people respond slowly and halfheartedly to competitive threats.

While this "neutral zone" is a part of every organizational change, the time spent there varies widely. Good planning and open communication can reduce stress and create a fertile environment for a healthy transition.

Another method for reducing stress is to make one large, sweeping change rather than a series of small changes that achieve the same end state. While this may seem contrary, the "transactional overhead" of creating incremental changes can create stress in the workforce. Many people would prefer to "just get it over with" and absorb one large change than be assaulted with month after month of small changes to the way they work.

One of the greatest challenges presented to an introducer of change is the need to sell the problem to the people affected. With most changes in organizational procedure, some people find themselves in a less prestigious position than they previously held. If everyone in a group is trained to be effective in all positions, then those who exclusively held those positions before find themselves less unique and may start to wonder if their jobs are suddenly in jeopardy. Convincing those people that the new changes are good can be very difficult. Spencer Johnson, author of Who Moved My Cheese? illustrates this point deftly, as can be seen in the following paragraph:

Hem appreciated his friend’s gesture but said, "I don’t think I would like New Cheese. It’s not what I’m used to. I want my own Cheese back and I’m not going to change until I get what I want."
While many would object to the idea of being compared to mice and cheese in a maze, Johnson’s parable holds true. If people don’t embrace a change, they will never complete the transition. It’s the process of letting go that people resist, not the change itself.

Finally, the use of "benchmarking" with other groups or companies who have gone through the same sort of changes or that are in the same situation can assist in designing a successful transition. It can also help the people involved see that others are, have been or need to be in the same position they are. Comparison of work processes, management techniques, standards, or whatever else describes the situation under change will aid the discover how things can be changed for the better.

Implementing change can be a difficult prospect. People comfortable with the status quo are hesitant to embrace new things, especially when it reduces their standing in an organization. Getting their "buy-in," engendering in them a sense of ownership of the solution, will ease the transition period or "neutral zone." In this "zone," organizations leave themselves open to a variety of ills, including blatant and passive sabotage of the project, missed work days, polarization of the workforce into groups of competing idealists, and threats from competing organizations. Clear communication of both the problem being solved and the architecture of the solution can ease the pains of the transition, especially if the solution is designed with a clear understanding of the organization and its existing processes. People with years of experience at a job can be slow to elaborate on all the aspects of their job, but quick to discover when something new won’t work. But knowing that people are naturally skeptics, and that resistance will occur during most change projects can prepare change managers for the worst problems. And, with five hundred years of accumulated literature on the subject, a leader of change can find assistance for almost any problem encountered literally at their fingertips.


  • Management First, "Resistance to Change: Enemy or Ally?"
  • Fast Company, "Resistance Fighter"
  • Adams, Robert M. The Prince, Second Edition, Niccolo Machiavelli. Norton, 1992.
  • Bridges, William. Managing Transitions; Making the Most of Change. Addison Wesley, 1991.
  • Johnson, Spencer. Who Moved My Cheese? Putnam, 1998.
If you don't stir the pot,
the stuff at the bottom just sits there.

1 comment:

Yatin Singal said...

If the stuff is light like water, there is a convection current to bring the bottom stuff to the top.