Resistance to change is not a ground rule … It is an investigation.

Business journals are filled with studies that stress the importance of change management to the success of a large business initiative. We read of the “valley of despair”, the “marathon effect” and the “situational” nature of change as characteristics of an organization in transition requiring focus and care. The point is driven home that a large-scale change effort must include the involvement of leaders, a broad suite of communications to multiple stakeholders, and a detailed analysis of how one’s job will change over time.

Despite this clarity of purpose related to organizational change, I contend that the most challenging component of a large business initiative to scope is the change management work stream. While so many of the activities associated with change management are predictable, these standard tasks comprise at most 70% of the overall work effort. The balance of the work is the tougher and, perhaps, more important part of the change leader’s role. This additional 30% is the detective work that determines where and why resistance occurs in small or large pockets of the business. Resistance is like a chameleon – it takes many different forms, some more discreet than others. It can be as bold as a leader who vocally challenges the legitimacy of an initiative in an executive meeting, as subtle as that same leader “choosing” not to incorporate initiative updates into the agenda, or as challenging as fighting your way through an “opt out” culture where if people don’t want to change…they don’t…and there’s no accountability. If we can successfully uncover the more implicit types of resistance, then we can clarify misconceptions, offer proof or a business case when we face objections from skeptics, and bring perspective and empathy to those situations where the concerns are real and valid.

In one client situation involving the adoption of a sophisticated forecasting tool, my team recognized the unexpected need for heightened support and training of an anxious forecasting team on data analytics and statistical models in order to utilize the tool’s functionality. In another situation involving a change to the sales process at a uniform rental company, we learned that resistant sales personnel needed some interim assistance from a newly created sales analyst role in order to more easily manage the transition to a highly automated future state. Neither of these scenarios were anticipated at the time the initial work plan was developed.

What are some of the ways change leaders can effectively and respectfully investigate resistance in the business? How can we break down those barriers that might mask the issues that really matter? Some ideas are proposed below:

  • Face to face leadership communication:In addition to the status calls and project communications already in place, the change leader must find time to speak to individual leaders who hold positional and cultural power. Ask about the project and their view of the progress, the organization’s buy-in to the effort, and what they feel their role should be.
  • Change agents or champions: Change agents are typically highly respected peer members of a functional team that will be impacted by a pending change. These individuals can become a valuable two-way communication channel between the project team and the impacted users. They are often best able to discern where legitimate, unspoken pockets of resistance occur and distinguish those from dysfunctional, unhealthy reactions in the business.
  • Empathy-based Inquiry: The Change leader has a responsibility to ask the questions which the impacted workforce will not think to ask, due primarily to the empathetic lens through which he/she views the project. For example, if a sales process get re-engineered to accommodate a new CRM tool, the change leader must ask how the sales team can be expected to hit certain goals (e.g. meetings per day), given heightened documentation requirements.
  • Intuition and Pattern Recognition: A change leader, whether internal to the business or external to the company, must instinctively be on the lookout for recognizable patterns from prior projects or other industries. These indicators enable the leader to suggest and test potential sources of resistance that are not yet explicit. If a finance manager in an automotive company reacts to a new budgeting process in a specific way, it is not unlikely that someone in that same role at a pharmaceutical company won’t have similar concerns. These possibilities must be mentally captured and documented for the team’s collective consideration.

While the change leader is not typically wearing a trench coat and a hat characteristic of modern day detectives, high performing change management teams are actively investigating the less obvious sources of resistance to business initiatives. They do this by listening and learning, asking and empathizing, connecting and engaging, so that proposed changes in the business can be openly discussed with the right people and with the right concerns at hand.

(this article was reposted from the website of Blossom Growth Partners (www.blossomgrowth.com))

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