Overcoming Resistance to Process Change

two rail tracks merging into one

Say the word ‘change’ in most organizations and you will elicit a whole range of responses and emotions. Some people will feel excitement at the opportunity of trying something new. Others will be resistant, and there may even be a large number of people who roll their eyes and cynically say ‘not again’. Some may ‘buy in’ to the idea of change providing it doesn’t affect their part of the operation. All of these responses are understandable as change will affect different stakeholders differently, and different individuals will have different perspectives, wants and needs. There may also be a whole range of personal or departmental agendas that exist – some of which are overt, some of which are hidden.

Process improvement and optimization inevitably involves some type of change. Sometimes we might be making small, incremental changes to a process whereas other times we might be making changes that are absolutely fundamental. It is tempting to think that smaller changes are easier to progress and will face less resistance, yet this isn’t always the case. Sometimes changes that seem perfectly small and rational on paper (‘let’s change the process so that letters are printed centrally rather than by each team’) might actually feel very large to those involved (‘but getting up and going to the printer is the only chance I get to stretch my legs’! Plus, since they are moving printers around, they’re moving my desk!). Teams that assume that change will be simple and trouble-free are likely to have a set of unexpected and unpleasant surprises.

So how do we avoid resistance to change? This is a tricky area worthy of debate, but at the very least this question needs to be addressed from at least two dimensions:

  1. How can we engage people so that we co-create change in a way that maximizes the positive outcomes for as many people as possible (and protects the needs of others)
  2. How can we ensure that we hear, respond to and where relevant address the valid concerns that people will inevitably raise along the way

By considering the first question, we focus on creating shared goals. We ensure that the relevant stakeholders are aware of the aims of the process re-design effort, the relevance of those goals for them, and more importantly we seek their views on how these goals can be attained. Often excellent ideas come from those who are directly involved in the process, after all these are the people closest to the customer and to the process. Getting to know a wide range of stakeholders also provides us with the opportunity to find out how the process really works – ‘warts and all’ – so that we can better understand any root causes. We build engagement in right from the beginning of the project or initiative.

However, unless the change is very small and self-contained, even with this conscious early stakeholder engagement it is still likely there will be some people who are less happy. Some stakeholders might see the codification of process knowledge as a threat, others might have hidden or personal agendas and other folks might be generally against change for a wide range of reasons.

Hopefully, actively involving relevant stakeholders means that those with opposing views are in the minority, but even so it is important that their views are taken into account. It would be ideal to cultivate a situation where everyone was supportive, but for large scale change this might be impossible. Whilst we should strive for consensus, there may be times when reaching a situation that the majority of people are happy with and the remainder accept is considered a win. This involves keeping people engaged and informed even if (arguable especially if) they appear to have dissenting views. If we understand more about the issues they have with the change, we are more likely to be able to win them round. Ensuring that they are involved and able to raise concerns is crucial, as is ensuring that those concerns are actively considered. After all, there is a possibility that they might know something that we do not, and incorporating their view might lead to a better outcome!

In summary: change can be hard and engagement is crucial. Stakeholder engagement should start early and should continue throughout the engagement. We shouldn’t see those that disagree as ‘outsiders’, we should continue to work with them and understand their concerns. By understanding the perspectives of our key stakeholders, we are able to work with them co-create change that is optimized for them.