On change and transition: resistance to change and the aftermath

Change is complex, and, in my experience, each change initiative has to cope with a unique mix of issues: a formulaic approach, striving to “recycle” what you did before is the best recipe for failure.

First small note- target: “change” here is focused mainly on public and private organizations (including political parties and advocacies), not individuals (i.e. “re-branding” or “repositioning” yourself); if you are your own “target for change”, have a look at Kotler’s book “High Visibility” (I read each edition since the first one, and I started giving it as a gift when I found somebody who could benefit from some “tuning”).

Second small note- content: as I posted on my Linkedin profile, I am referring to any kind of change, also with no technological or physical content whatsoever (those of us working in change coming from a business IT perspective, including myself, should constantly remind themselves that technology is a tool- do not use it if there is no value added).

This article is relatively short (less than 2000 words)- therefore… I should now move to the core argument: if there is any detail that sounds puzzling, or you have any question… contact me on Linkedin, Facebook, or Twitter.

Suppliers vs Customers

Let’s say that you are a supplier, whose aim is to introduce the same technology that you already introduced elsewhere to a new customer, or to convert an organization similar to one you worked with elsewhere toward a “federal” organizational structure, or to help to streamline a bureaucracy after doing that time and again.

In each of those cases, a copycat solution is a useful choice for the supplier, enabling economies of scale, but not for the customer, as this approach tries to introduce something that is not really considering the specifics of an individual social, cultural, political, economic context (and I am referring to change both in the private and the public sector).

Let’s switch now to the customer side: beside getting your organization tuned to a “best practice” that is probably obsolete (meaning: how innovative is something that is already true and tried elsewhere? yes, there are “fashion trends” also in organizational change!), by being oblivious of your own environment you risk that, as soon as those introducing the change will move to another change initiative elsewhere, what will be left behind is something that is scarcely manageable by your own people.

Agents of change and change-resistance

Probably you heard the phrase “agent of change”- and considered as if it was yet another “management fad”.

It might come as a surprise, considering that on the detailed CV connected to my Linkedin profile I listed mainly my organizational and technological change experiences since 1990: i.e. working as an “agent of change”.

But in some cases, I agree that “agents of change” actually act as “change inhibitors” (OK- those of you from other fields can use the case of the misuse of antibiotics and consider that organizational change can have the same side-effects).

Of course- my profile conveniently omits prior activities that played a pivotal role in shifting my book- and observation-based studies on cultural anthropology and organizations and societies into something useful within a business context, activities that are not usually part of the traditional training path for change management.

But those unusual experiences had a significant benefit: exposed theory to short-term “reality checks” that gradually expanded in scope and depth, allowing to shift from seeing change within any organization as a “by the book” process, to something closer to a “feed-back loop”.

Probably a couple of explanations are in order, before venturing any further.

First, the “feed-back loop”: if you identify where your are, where you want to go, and how you will move from your starting point to your destination, listening and observing are important tools to overcome resistance to change- and to ensure that any change delivered is sustainable and will seed continuous improvement, after those tasked to deliver the change move somewhere else.

Second, “change inhibitors”: if you fail to carry out the continuous monitoring described in the previous point, you risk achieving the opposite effect, i.e. instead of introducing change that will last and help to get used to identify and/or manage change when needed, you help build a coalition of those with a vested interest in the status quo ante, whose resistance to change will gradually attract more and more sympathizers from those who, otherwise, would have just been sitting on the fence, or gradually adapted to change.

I think that I do not need to further expand these two points: use your brain (or rent few brains)- and play the logical consequences, as it simply means that a mismanaged change is an “organizational vaccine” against further change (yes, change is a virus- if you introduce a culture of change within your organization, you need to sustain it, if you want to reap its benefits).

To summarize: mismanaging change fosters the usual “us vs them” conditioned reflex that is imprinted within the DNA of any organization– two or three organizational generations down the road, shifts the culture of organization from healthy skepticism to outright resistance to change.

The life-cycle of change

Have a look at the online material on the MSP methodology (formerly at OGC, now part of the Cabinet Office) for an overview on non-technological change and what it entails: at least, read the 2011 MSP Overview Brochure.

In my experience, unless you introduce continuous change, i.e. the organization gets used to change as a continuous improvement process, a “temporary change organization” stays so only if its boss has a temporary position with a mandate to produce specific results within a pre-defined timeframe.

And, usually, this potentially comes with a pre-arranged “landing spot”, i.e. an agreement on what happens next to the temporary leader.

If the results are (as often in change) to be phased in through cycles, this and other details allow to align the pace and content of change with organizational reality, involving the most appropriate resources in each phase and task.

Move beyond ex-post “knowledge transfer”

Personally, whenever involved in any form or shape of change, from introducing a new technology to changing “our way of doing things around here” (and the organizational structures supporting the new culture), I found useful defining a communication plan and communication channels from day 1, agreeing with the customer to “coopt” (overtly or covertly) within the activities in each phase resources from the customer side.

Their role? Act as a “pre-emptive sounding board”, giving information useful to tune the activities, and identify potential internal antennas to be coached at a later stage, ensuring that the last day of the activies was actually the first day when internal resources could take over.

Just a quick note: whenever “coopting”, I try as much as possible to avoid the usual “casting” approach, where the customer and/or the consultants follow a formal internal recruiting process, pre-selecting (or running a “corporate beauty contest” to select) those who will then be “elected” to the new “continuous improvement support” structures (there are way too many methodologies, each one with its own name for the support organization).

Why? Because talk comes cheap, and can be easily “pre-packaged”: I rather see the walk and teach the talk, than the other way around- to ensure that those left behind will be able to talk and walk the talk.

It would be a digression to discuss here “how” this is done- but I think that you have enough information to apply your own brain to the issue- and think before you act.

Avoid the “musical chair change evangelist”

If a temporary boss is replaced by another temporary boss, the life of the temporary “change” organization becomes associated with its budget, not the achievement of results- and the more changes there are at the helm, the less the chance that the end results will be those originally intended.

In the past, I wrote in this blog few articles discussing “management patterns” where the first boss hit the wall (usually as change was introduced without a preliminary “fact-finding mission”), the second was used to justify a revision of the scope and mapping the depth and breadth of the issues that made impossible to produce the original results, while a third one was called in to pick up the pieces, and deliver a face-saving set of “results”.

But whoever gets the job, a clear mandate is needed- and the first test of this mandate is usually a preliminary assessment of the real conditions.

Both I and other colleagues had to regret accepting to work on change activities where we were asked to do “continuation work” on technological or business/organizational change, i.e. taking over without being allowed to carry out the fact-finding activities needed to assess the viability of the plan, usually because it had been recently done from others, and while the original change team had been removed, those sponsoring the original budget had just confirmed the budget and/or plan (and yes, eventually I learned what to look for before saying “I/we can do it”).

Litmus test for your mandate

It is true that often you need to be creative, as some sort of fact-finding preceeds the search for external help to introduce change, and therefore you cannot just simply go down there and ask the same questions, to Blitzkrieg your way through the organization.

But if your “sponsor” is not even willing to support the fact-finding phase, can you imagine what will happen when you will have to discuss real issues?

Another mistake is receiving a mandate from somebody who is with one foot outside the door: a viable option at best only if you are asked just to do an audit and identify options for potential changes.

And sometimes even that is not enough, as those willing to resist change will actually know that they just need to dig in (a bureaucracy is wonderful at sandbagging) to weather the “tide of change”- until the new boss will arrive.

Because, of course, the consultants’ reasonable unwillingness to “inherit” and carry on half-baked activities with not ability to challenge any assumption is shared by quite a few bosses.

What’s next for the “agents of change”

I see three main choices:

  1. moving out e.g. a consultant or consulting team transferring knowledge to somebody within the organization (hopefully by coaching an internal team during the change), somebody who will be both able to sustain the benefits achieved by change and keep the historical memory of the change process, i.e. not only the “before” and “after”, but also “why” each choice was made (to avoid re-inventing the wheel in the future)
  2. moving up i.e. the agent of change and his team are actually to take over the organization, and change is just a first step toward that end, a kind of “extended fact-finding” (if you want- like in the movie “Brubaker”)
  3. moving sideways i.e. becoming a kind of “roving agent”, supporting change in another part of the organization, or acting as an “institutional memory” (part of the role that is typically embedded within the organizational development or internal audit function)

Or: whoever introduces change either keeps an internal role justifying the depth and breadth of cross-functional business and “political” knowledge acquired in the process, or has to move out.


First, what you read above is not rocket science: “learning-and-thinking-outside-the-box”, listening, and communicating are the main tools, to avoid getting carried away by the compulsive need to implement not the change itself, but your plan for change (usually drafted before you did the “fact-finding”).

Second, whoever is that “agent of change”, in my experience, has to build, possess, or benefit from extensive knowledge of the “environment” (as described above) of the organization that (s)he is helping to change.

Last but not least: change for change sake is a waste of resources and a distraction from solving structural issues… think first “why”, then “how”- if something is “new” or called a “best practice” does not necessarily imply that it is a “best choice” for your organization.


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