“That’s just not the way we do things.”
There are two types of reaction to the unknown: thrill (for those of you who thrive off of uncertainty), or resistance (for all those who are more cautious and yet need convincing).
Even if the change you are trying to implement at work is a positive one, you may still need to convince the key players why they should jump on this bandwagon.
But change is important! It’s how we continue to offer a better experience to our customers and improve our own work environment.
Today we will look at five strategies you can use to overcome resistance to change, whether it’s your team, the CEO, or yourself.
#1. Understand the reason for resistance
Change has both a technical as well as a social aspect. HBR describes this dichotomy perfectly: “The technical aspect of the change is the making of a measurable modification in the physical routines of the job. The social aspect of the change refers to the way those affected by it think it will alter their established relationships in the organization.”
When we seek to convince, we often focus on the technical aspects of change. How are processes going to change? What new tools or ideas do we need to use?
But by doing this, we neglect the social aspect of change. What impact does this have on the relationships other employees have carefully created within the organization?
Take, for example, the process of moving towards an automated recovery system. While it’s easy to show the advantages of less downtime, more stability, and faster recovery, the social aspects of the change also need to be addressed. How does the sustaining engineer on staff feel about being “replaced” with an automated system? Will they torpedo your suggestion simply to maintain their existing useful status in the organization? What if your manager (who used to be the first point of call) doesn’t understand the workings of the new system? Do they feel their power being threatened by this change? Even if everyone can clearly see the benefits of a new way of doing things, it’s sometimes easier to fight to maintain existing social structures than to forge something new.
When suggesting a change, consider both the social and technical aspects. Engage individuals who may feel threatened in the decision-making process. If they can carve out a new place in the social fabric early, they will be more likely to support change than fight it.
#2. Come armed with data
I used to work with a CEO who was much more likely to trust something written in a book than something I suggested. A colleague, finding it impossible to convince the CEO, finally exclaimed in a meeting one day, “I’m going to write a book just so you can read it and believe me!” Maybe then we’d finally be able to convince him.
I don’t think we were alone in this situation. As frustrating as it is, this resistance can easily be overcome by bringing compelling data and case studies to the negotiating table.
- Look for companies that have overcome the same problems before.
- Search for vendors that offer case studies and resources on their blogs.
- Take the time to calculate the impact a change will have. For example, if you believe you can reduce the amount of downtime, calculate the current cost of downtime on your business.
Hard numbers and examples go a long way to convince management you’ve done the research and understand the impact of change.
#3. Communicate a “Change Story”
A change story is a tool that combines facts with a memorable emotional response for more impact. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years, mainly because it’s the best way for us to communicate important information and build connections. Instead of telling a manager that a new tool will be better, convince them by painting a picture of what the future will look like… both with and without the change. Torben Rick, a change management consultant believes that storytelling is one of the most important aspects of change management.
“Research on memory conclusively shows that all the critical details, data, and analytics, are more effectively emotionalized and metabolized by the listener when they’re embedded in a story – and they become significantly more actionable.”
Torben suggests that the best change stories cast individuals as “agents of change” rather than defenders of the status quo. This allows stakeholders to become the hero in the story. They can picture their new social status as an innovator. Developing a great change story makes it easier for individuals to accept change and understand the direction of change.
#4. Build support
Who else would see a benefit from proposed changes? Do they have the ear of senior management? If so, it might be time to form some allies.
Get the momentum going by introducing ideas casually to colleagues over coffee or at the watercooler. Ask if they have any ideas or opinions on how that process is currently handled. They might have a unique opinion you haven’t considered yet.
Bring these thoughts to your manager in your next meeting, and incorporate other teams and goals into your change story. When management starts to understand the impact your change could make across the entire company, they should be more receptive to exploring it.
Note: there’s a big difference between building support for an idea and mutiny. Tread carefully if there’s a chance your boss might think you’re going over their head or trying to make them look bad.
#5. Think incrementally
Not all big changes have to happen all at once. In fact, in development, big changes should rarely happen all at once. Continuous Development practices have become popular in the last few years because of their ability to facilitate stable, incremental changes. The O’Reilly book “Building Evolutionary Architecture” adds to the practice of Continuous Development with the idea of evolutionary architecture which is designed to “support guided, incremental change across multiple dimensions”.
Flexible architecture supports small, incremental changes. For example, O’Reilly describes using microservices which allows for a share-nothing architecture: “Each service is operationally distinct to eliminate technical coupling and therefore promote change at a granular level.” Instead of completely redesigning a complex system of dependencies with new architecture, first check if it’s possible to separate out one microservice.
The biggest benefit to small changes is the lack of red tape to cut through. Steve Sewell, a change management professional with the NHS, suggests that employees “stay below the executive radar and let the small changes flourish”. Look for opportunities to make a small step towards the future you want to see. As momentum picks up and results come in, change will seem inevitable to even the biggest doubters.
For inspiration, consider the British cycle team that brought home gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Sir Dave Brailsford, head of British Cycling, turned around a 76 year long dry streak by focusing on incremental change. Every small piece of competition was broken down into opportunities for a 1% improvement. He believed that if many small improvements could be made, they’d add up to substantial gains in performance. For example, they determined which pillow gave them the best night’s sleep and brought it with them for competition. The small gain in performance from a superior pillow might be small, but the accumulation of many marginal gains brought them home the gold.
If you can’t make change happen
So what happens if you bring data, create a change story and still can’t even make incremental changes happen with your team? There are two options. You can either suck it up and continue to follow your manager’s lead, or you can find a new team that’s more receptive to change.
If you’re always looking for new ways of doing things, working in a team that loves keeping the status quo isn’t right for you. That friction will create burnout and apathy. Instead, find a place where your ability to drive change is an asset.
Go forth and make change happen!