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People resist change, so how can we implement it systematically?

Why can’t we implement organisational and behavioural change, even small changes, like we update software? The default answer is ‘people’ resist change.
Related Topics:
Rethinking work
22 July 2024
David Schmidtchen, Sally Dorsett
5 mina

Why can’t we implement organisational and behavioural change, even small changes, like we update software? The default answer is ‘people’ resist change.

This is not a new problem, but it desperately needs a new solution which means it needs new thinking. In 1969, Paul Lawrence wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review where he asked a question that is as relevant today as it was then:

Does it follow, therefore, that business management is forever saddled with the onerous job of “forcing” change down the throats of resistant people?

The idea that people ‘resist change’ and that ‘resistance to change’ is part of the everyday conversation for all leaders and managers is commonplace. It is an easy conversational trope around which leaders from different organisations and industries can all rally around and feel a shared sense of managerial camaraderie.

But what does it mean to say that people ‘resist change’? 

David Schmidtchen, a Partner at Synergy Group, believes that we don’t spend enough time thinking about why people are ‘resisting change’.

“The language used to describe the resistance is important. You will hear resistance described as the fear of losing something important such as a job or the fear of reduced privacy. It might also be described as the lack of something either in the character of the workforce or the structure of the organisation such as the lack of an innovation mindset or the lack of adequate incentive structures.

“Leaders and managers describe resistance to change as a shortcoming of some sort. We respond by reducing the fear or repairing the deficiency. I’m not convinced this is helping,” says Schmidtchen.

“Change is social and emotional. It can be very personal. It challenges stability and asks each person involved to take a chance. And, it is risky and uncertain,” says Schmidtchen. “In our experience, change is not inevitable. It only happens well when history, power, and the imagined future all line up with opportunity. Many wonderful reforms have come to nothing for the want of this alignment.”

Schmidtchen says nor is resistance to change the result of obstinate luddites blindly clinging to current practice. “Rather, it is people sensibly working though the contradictions of change and how that impacts them. The practice of change is cultural and behavioural. The struggle to change is not technical but rather social and emotional,” he says.

How should leaders ‘manage’ change?

Sally Dorsett, also a Partner at Synergy Group, says, “We shouldn’t be managing change, instead we should accept improvisation as the art of leading others through change”.

“Improvisation is about seeing and acting on opportunity. It is a practical and emotional experience that is tightly linked to the way people understand their purpose, meaning, and value in the workplace,” says Dorsett.

Synergy Group is pushing past traditional approaches to change down a new path that brings together the best of creative design and behavioural change. They are calling it, CreativeXPeople.

Dorsett explains, “We think about CreativeXPeople as our way of bringing the right thinking and capabilities to successfully leading organisational change. It is practical, adaptive, behavioural, and creative. With that in mind, we think leaders need to be better at improvising.”

“We need to lead, think, act, and learn in a way that recognises there is a lot going on in our workplaces and the lives of our people. Improvisation requires those leading change to be comfortable the exact path through will not be clear, that some important decisions will be immediate and intuitive, the people taking those decisions could be anywhere in our organisation, and that to be successful all leaders need to be in close contact with each other and their people,” says Dorsett.

Dorsett and Schmidtchen have some practical advice for leaders looking to improvise:

  • Stop jumping to solutions. As individuals we need to let go of the need to know the answer in advance.
  • Change is not a ‘paint by numbers’ activity. We all need to value the social, cultural, and behavioural over the technical.
  • Yes, and…. history is important. We need to build off our organisational history and the ideas and input of those around us. When we talk about people ‘resisting change’ the tendency is to close conversation because it isn’t running to the script of our change management plan.
  • Don’t be afraid to make specific, rather than general decisions. Change is uncertain. Local decisions ground the change in practical ways for people. The best way to engage people in change is not to tell them but to show them.
  • Communicate authentically. Our advice is that leaders don’t play down the challenge of change. Most people understand that change is necessary and, in our experience, will want to contribute positively.

Schmidtchen and Dorsett are taking a learning-by-doing approach to CreativeXPeople, “It’s an exciting mixture of ideas and experiences”, says Dorsett, “and we are working in partnership with our clients to ensure we land these ideas in practical ways that will improve the way people experience work.”

About CreativeXPeople

CreativeXPeople is a journey of exploration through practice. Our objective is to get to a complete approach to organisational change that is supported by techniques that are grounded in a more complete understanding of human psychology and behaviour in the workplace.