Explicitly Expect Resistance

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One of the key differences in modern change management approaches is that you should explicitly expect resistance whenever you’re planning to change anything. Sometimes this is obvious. Theodore Dreiser had it right when he said “Never underestimate someone’s capacity to misunderstand something if their job depends on that misunderstanding”. So that’s obvious, right, people are scared of losing their jobs and so they will obviously resist something which could result in that outcome.

But in less severe situations than that, you can also expect opposition, and it can be as simple as pique because the people didn’t come up with the idea themselves.

The ProSci approach is the strongest I’ve seen in this space, but the Microsoft Service Adoption approach also covers this. Prosci works from the premise that from day one, you know some people will be unhappy whatever you try and do, so you should plan for this, and work out what you’re going to do when you see it happening.

So how do you know you’re going to hit resistance? My experience is that people will tell you – not the resistors themselves – but others who lick the wounds caused by previous change efforts which didn’t go down well. One of the first things I do as a PM is ask as many people as possible about previous projects over the last year or so. That gives you clues straight away. And then, I follow a simple checklist to assess the impact of the project on people who work in the company or organisation involved. This forces me to identify accurately:

  1. Specific stakeholder mapping with an emphasis to understanding exactly how the project affects the people in the organisation.
  2. Once segmented, this allows me to look at the next stage – understanding the change from the perspective of the individual person involved. Change is always personal – it’s always about how it affects me.
  3. Then I try and reframe the change so that it is seen as a benefit to the person involved. Most people don’t care about benefit management, or saving the company money. But they do care about whether or not something allows them to work faster, spend less time on low value work, and concentrate on high value work. They care about their level of autonomy, about feeling that they are contributing to something better and about not being de-powered or degraded in their own view of themselves.
  4. And that leads me to managing resistance by promoting involvement of those affected by a change in the design of the change itself. This has two benefits: it gives people a sense of control, and it makes the change better because the best people to fix problems with a process are the people who work with the process day to day, not outsiders who don’t have the same level of tacit understanding on how things work round here. Lean Process Improvement thinking has it absolutely right when it states that performance is dictated by the process, not the people. We often see a performance issue with people when it’s a design issue with a process.
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