When change is hard, we sometimes blame "resistors" — people who refuse to change. We say that they don't "get it" or that they're defending their current advantageous positions, or that they're fearful, or that a few troublemakers misled them. If we don't blame the resistors, we blame the planners of the change. They failed to account for various difficulties, or their plan was defective, or they had a good plan, but they failed to execute it.
Sometimes we blame both the planners and the resistors.
Certainly there are defective plans for change. Certainly there are people who are reluctant to change. But both of these analyses overlook three central features of change:
- People have human needs and human desires, and we must deal with people as people.
- Systems are complex. Our understanding of how they work and how their parts interrelate is probably imperfect.
- Changing systems sometimes requires following indirect paths. The shortest path isn't always effective.
Here are two examples of the application of these principles.
- We might be unaware of external constraints
- Difficulties can sometimes arise from external factors not directly related to the change itself. These factors can seem remote at first, until we actually experience them.
- For instance, trying to change a process the mastery of which is viewed as essential to high performance can create motivational problems, because people see their expertise as being questioned.
- The plan to change the process is effective from a process design point of view. And the people who were affected weren't resisting change — they're just applying their own understanding of what the organization values. Unless we deal with external constraints like these, change is hard.
- The desire for change has emotional foundations
- When we plan change, People have human needs and
human desires, and we must
deal with people as peoplewe tend to make plans that follow direct paths in process transformation space. But the space in which change actually takes place includes the feelings, knowledge, and attitudes of the people who must adapt. Direct orders to "adapt or else" do not work well at all.
- People need more than orders to adapt. This is especially true of those whose work depends on knowledge, skill, and relationships. Understanding why we're making a particular change does help, but it isn't enough either. Desire to change — positive desire to adapt — comes about only when people identify with their work and with the organization.
- A plan to communicate to people what the new regime will be, without seeking their support, isn't defective in itself. As a communication plan, it might be perfectly valid. And the people who choose not to support the changes aren't actually resisting it — they simply don't identify with it. When active support for change is missing, change is hard.
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More articles on Organizational Change:
- He's No Longer Here
- Sometimes we adopt inappropriate technologies, or we deploy unworkable processes, largely because of
the political power of their advocates, and despite widespread doubts about the wisdom of the moves.
Strangely, though, the decisions often stick long after the advocates move on. Why? And what can we
do about it?
- Training Bounceback
- Within a week after we've learned some new tool or technique, sometimes even less, we're back to doing
things the old way. It's as if the training never even happened. Why? And what can we do to change this?
- Power, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
- Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they
function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
- Good Change, Bad Change: I
- Change is all around. Some changes are welcome and some not, but when we distinguish good change from
bad, we often get it wrong. Why?
- When Change Is Hard: II
- When organizational change is difficult, we sometimes blame poor leadership or "resistance."
But even when we believe we have good leadership and the most cooperative populations, we can still
encounter trouble. Why is change so hard so often?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Some working groups consist of experts from many fields. When they must reach a decision by consensus, members have several options. Defining those options in advance can help the group reach a decision with all its relationships intact. Available here and by RSS on July 8.
- And on July 15: Disjoint Concept Vocabularies
- In disputes or in problem solving sessions, when we can't seem to come to agreement, we often attribute the difficulty to miscommunication, histories of disagreements, hidden agendas, or "personality clashes." Sometimes the cause is much simpler. Sometimes the concept vocabularies of the parties don't overlap. Available here and by RSS on July 15.
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