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Change resistance is not the problem

It keeps popping up, whether you read authentic articles on social media or ask ChatGTP, the number one problem for successful change or transformation is ‘people resisting change’.

There’s a problem with that statement: it’s wrong.

It is not a problem; it is a consequence

The real problems are the way we [change agents and agile coaches alike] think about and drive the execution of change. Here’s a short list of actual problems that cause change resistance:

  • We keep telling and selling change to people.

  • We focus on urgency without clarifying why the change is needed.

  • We do not give people a voice in the process, or in a very late stage.

  • We ask them to behave differently.

  • We plan their activity without consulting if, and when, they might have time for it.

  • We take for granted we push the right change without knowing if there is a more pressing problem for people.

  • We assign them (the right) tasks without understanding the reaction of and real impact on (and for) the people.

  • We don’t allow them to experiment and are not willing to accept failure or delays, because they don’t fit within our timeline and budget, they deviate us from obtaining the promised results and ROI.

Our human nature has us focus on ‘the others’, you might have grasped that by now, which is why resistance appears.

People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.

What to do different?

There are simple actions we can take, though they feel counter intuitive for many of us change agents and agile coaches. In essence: we need to change first. We need to shift our thinking about change and the way we approach change activities to a much more inclusive stance.

Gartner has seen the light, they write “After years of disruption, however, employee change willingness has outright collapsed and “change fatigue” is taking a toll.” In this article they propose 3 shifts that help us in the right direction. This is an abbreviated extract of these points in their article:

  1. Involve employees in decision making - This may be challenging because it’s hard to include the right people, at the right time and in the right way. But it’s a crucial step, as it increases change success by 15%.

  2. Shift implementation planning to employees - When employees primarily own implementation planning, change success increases by 24% and improves the odds of the initiative being well-received and sustainable.

  3. Engage in two-way conversations throughout the process - It’s imperative to engage employees in honest conversations throughout the change process. Employees “getting it” is a driver of change success; their “liking it” isn’t.

What’s interesting about this?

Who doesn’t know the ‘famous’ 70% change failure rate number… That means that change is only successful in 30% of the cases. Following Gartner’s shift we can add 15% and 24% to that. Imagine. 3 shifts and your success rate of change surges to 69%!!!

And there’s more!

In another of their articles, on Organizational Change Management, Gartner claims:

Modern organizations with flatter organizational structures and complex reporting lines can vastly improve the likelihood of change success by adopting an open-source change management strategy. This approach can help you increase the probability of change success by up to 22%, cut implementation time by up to one-third, and reduce time spent on change by up to 12 hours per week per employee.

Hmmm. Let’s do a quick calculation. For the sake of it; the numbers are just an example.

  • Change success +22%. Let’s add that to the other number in the same article of “34% are a clear success”. They also state that 50% fails, which leaves 16% somewhere in the middle.

  • Then the chance on change success is about 55%. Let assume the success increase affects the failure and the group in the middle equally. That means we reduce failure rate from 50% to ~30%, and partial failure decreases from 16% to about 14% (round it up or down if you want to come to 100%...). This means that an organizational change with, for example, an estimated net business result improvement of 1 million Euro now has 55% chance on return, and ‘only’ 30% on failure.

  • Cut implementation time by a third means that the improvements resulting in that 1 million don’t come in 1 year, but in 8 months!

  • And 12 hours per week per employee, let’s say an employee cost you 50€ per hour, is saving you 600€ per week per employee. Independent from the change being a success or not. How many FTE’s do you have working on your Organizational Change, or Enterprise Agile Transformation again? 10? 50? 100? How many weeks are you already working on it? 10? 20? 50? Do the math... This is not about ‘failing fast’, it is about ‘failing cheap’!

In summary: more successful outcomes, in a shorter time, at a lower cost!


Who doesn’t want that!?

The data and universals

A good reader might have noticed a little cynicism between the lines.

Here’s the thing. There’s no mention of any research behind that data. It is great for marketing. It is great, thank you Gartner, for consultants to make the business case for their customers. But where is the data?

In that last article Gartner mentions that they “surveyed more than 6,500 employees and over 100 CHROs around the globe and found that the best organizations rely on their workforce, not executives, to lead transformational change.”.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy with these revelations from such a well-recognized institute like Gartner, but I’m preaching this shift already for 5 years. Jason Little wrote about it already in 2014 in his book “Lean Change Management”. The conclusions Gartner proposes were already part of our preaching way before Gartner mentions this as a shift.

Jason’s asked feedback of over 8.000 change specialists (which have each worked with thousands of employees…) from all over the world, to the question “In your experience what is differentiating successful change?” From this he formulated the 5 Universals of Change (read this as ‘do more of that on the left’ and ‘do less of that on the right’):

  • We value cause and purpose over urgency for change.

  • We believe in enabling meaningful dialogue over broadcasting information at people.

  • We believe in co-creating change over getting buy-in through coercion.

  • We believe in experimenting our way through change over executing tasks in a plan.

  • We believe in understanding the response to change over blaming people for resisting.

Through Lean Change we work with the people involved in and impacted by the change as early possible. We have conversations about the why of the change. Why this one, why now. We let them be involved in the co-creation of what needs to be done, when and how (hint: through experimentation). We accept that not everybody likes the change, though early involvement, dialogue and clarifying about why it is needed, we organically reduce “resistance”.

Note this: there’s no mention of numbers. There’s no guaranteed x% increase of success, reduction of implementation time or hours of involvement. First, because these ‘measures’ are very ambiguous. Second, because we work with people. No shift, or universal, can generalize benefits of change. What we DO know is that the more experienced the change facilitator is in applying these 5 universals, the higher the chance that the change will generate benefits. Even if they are different in form and size from the initial objectives.

To conclude

Ok, it was only November 2022 when this Gartner article was published so maybe you haven’t gotten to read it yet. And we know that as long as companies like Gartner do not align their vision with the vision you’re sharing (no matter for how long you’re already doing that) the journey to mainstream acceptance is extremely slow.

But since it is 2023 by now... Isn’t it time to let go of all those strategies that propose to do change at people and start believing change must be done with people? Isn't it time to stop claiming people resistance is the number one bottleneck for change?

Isn't it time we start to look at what we do? How we approach change? How we execute change?

Remember, it’s up to you if you want to solve the number one problem in change and transformation!

Like this? Connect! More information and Lean Change Management training here.

Cover image credit: Banksy/David Boyle

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