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 (

Igniting Your Company’s Culture: From Vacuum to Boardroom

Really important work is completed at companies big and small to make explicit what is already in the hearts and minds of their people – the cultural values of the enterprise. Yet for so many companies, these principles live as a framed document created at one moment in time and never generating the kind of business impact considered so promising at their inception.

How do we take a corporate culture from a “vacuum” within which many might think it now lives and into a “boardroom” where the underlying values can come alive and thrive? This is a legitimate question on several fronts. First, the integrity of a culture and its associated values are only as strong as one’s ability to apply the culture on the job and in the market. Second, there is a precious time investment associated with the articulation of a culture/values/desired behaviors, whether tacitly or analytically defined. A lack of discipline and leadership to execute these behaviors within the business would seem to be unacceptable. Finally, there is a negative impact on the human reaction to a culture that is sedentary and dated. Such an impact can harm recruiting efforts, competitive differentiation in the market, and organizational morale.

So what types of cultural bridges or tactics can bring our culture and human capital values to life and serve a productive role for the business?

Years ago I worked with a financial services company that had a small, but growing, multi-family lending division. Despite the positive momentum of its strong brand, low transaction fees, and a strong sales team, this bank faced strong headwinds related to its success in creating a positive “customer experience”. Specifically, formal customer feedback called out the insufficient way in which the sales team Communicated with borrowers during the lending process, the Accuracy of the information borrowers received (e.g. interest rates), the Reliability of the data and documentation deadlines posted, and the overall Ease of doing business (e.g. efficiency, steps in the process). We called this unfortunate acronym C-A-R-E. We then leveraged the bank’s core values to articulate a new sales culture built around an improved CARE sales process with a commitment to dramatically elevating the customer experience. The charismatic President of this division was at the forefront of this initiative, advocating the importance of becoming a CARE sales manager.

This is just one example of a competitive lever, in the form of a performance gap, which served as a landing ground for the bank’s existing corporate values. Certainly, any particular lever will draw out some values more than others. But if these values are the right ones for this culture, what better template for a solution can you find than the collectively defined and communicated tenets of the business. Below are three ways to bring your own values strategically alive.

  • Mobilize the culture and corporate values around priorities or opportunities within the business. A SWOT Analysis provides one natural framework here. Perhaps there is a weakness or threat that must be strategically addressed, such as the lending organization’s service issues discussed above. When Steve Jobs returned to Apple after his long hiatus, the company’s culture of “innovation” that had been so vibrant during the production of the Macintosh but somewhat lost after his departure, became immediately activated upon his return to drive the development of the iMac and decades of future products. Alternatively, there might be a Strength or Opportunity for growth. Certainly, when Timberland expanded from a boot company to an outdoor apparel company, its values adapted to a broader vision that included wool socks, flannel shirts and winter sports. New acquisitions might also present revenue channels long considered prohibitive. In such a case, the values can be applied to these newly defined opportunities or, as is often the case, the new or interim leadership team actually rolls out a fresh set of values for NewCo.
  • Design learning initiatives that train the talent of the company on ways to apply the culture to changes in the business. Recognizing the speed of change, well-designed training programs help reconcile leadership’s understanding of key initiatives and ensure alignment with the culture. Many companies invest heavily in new hire orientation programs that include a detailed discussion of the values of the company. When such a program is successfully delivered, all team members (e.g. call center manager, accounts payable clerk, sales director, logistics supervisor), with equal clarity, can discuss what a value like “collaboration” or “risk-taking” means to the way they do their job.
  • Incorporate the corporate values into core processes of the business as a way to “live” the culture, walk the talk and, of course, generate superior business performance. If “safety” or “candor” or “fun” is indeed an element of the collective culture, then why not incorporate the performance of the value into the ratings of leaders who must be the champions of an emerging culture. If “self-discipline” is a stated value, shouldn’t we ensure that self-discipline is hard-wired into the way we forecast and schedule customer orders, the way we pay vendors and the way we provide career opportunities for our people?

No one gets too excited seeing a laminated set of corporate values on the wall, with the possible exception of those who spent a ton of time and drank a lot of coffee building them out. The leadership opportunity here rests on mobilizing our people to apply these values and use the collective culture as a business tool to drive economic value.