Strategy clinic: How do I overcome resistance to change?

Industry experts answer a reader's question about implementing change despite resistance from staff.

The question

How do I overcome resistance to change?



The answer

Demonstrate clear cost advantages to proposed changes

Simon Moores, managing director, zentelligence, vice-chairman (policy development) at the Conservative Technology Forum

In the prevailing tight economic climate, I find that resistance to change can be overcome if one has a sufficiently compelling argument that supports a reduction in costs.

In the public sector in particular, it is hard to push through new ideas and technologies at the same speed as the private sector, but the process can be accelerated if you can point to a clear, short-term cost advantage in replacing one solution with another.

The primary problem facing the public sector at present is that, in many cases, the investment required to achieve that vision of a lower total cost of ownership does not exist, with budgets being slashed across the board. So, just as we reach a new period in the evolution of technology, with the internet disappearing into the cloud, it becomes very difficult, however persuasive the argument, to find funding for anything more than maintaining the status quo in the face of unprecedented budget pressures on IT departments.




Encourage people to engage positively with the change plan



Robina Chatham, research associate, executive programme, for the Leading Edge Forum

There are essentially three ways to get people to do things:

  • You force them by threat of negative consequences if they do not comply;
  • You give them something in exchange for their compliance;
  • They do it because they believe in you and/or the proposed course of action.


Willing participation is the only real way to make change happen. This involves engaging people’s hearts as well as their minds. You will need to:

  • Communicate effectively. Be clear about the reason for the change and the anticipated outcomes; be passionate and inspirational;
  • Involve people in the change process. Actively listen to them and be prepared to incorporate their ideas and suggestions;
  • Remove excuses. Purge unnecessary activities to provide the time and energy;
  • Utilise peer pressure. Seek out role models and ambassadors and use them to influence the masses;
  • Remove uncertainty and threat. Tell the truth and as much of it as possible; in the absence of information, people always assume the worst;
  • Train people in new skills and behaviours. Be patient, give them encouragement and forgive their mistakes;
  • Give people emotional support. Be empathetic, offer them a shoulder to cry on and time to come to terms with the change.


All this takes time, so create momentum by starting with a few quick and easy steps. A long list of activities can be overwhelming and a sense of being overwhelmed stops action.




Be clear and open about how changes will affect your staff


Michael Dean, director of advisory services at the National Computing Centre

Resistance typically occurs when people are apprehensive about the future and the part they will play in it, especially if they have not been consulted beforehand. Will your plans require them to do things differently, learn new skills, adopt new practices? Inevitably, yes.


Anything you can do to address the apprehension will be beneficial. Be clear and open about what you are changing and why, and share this with the people affected. Not everybody gets to see the company’s big picture and office politics can often distort reasons for change, so use team meetings to ensure that everybody understands the real reasons for the change and your vision for the future.


Those with negative views about the change thrive on lack of clarity, detail and honesty, so articulate and flesh out your vision regularly so everybody understands where they are heading and can own their own change plan. In particular, make sure that your direct reports are fully conversant with the changes.


Use your intranet to share your plans, but follow up with one-to-one meetings and discuss changes and evolving roles with individuals. Where possible, provide support, training or mentoring, but do not promise things you cannot deliver.




Build a compelling and exciting business case


Isabelle Jenkins, head of financial services technology at PwC

Traditional good practice answers to this question involve building a compelling business case and being clear about the business benefits that change will deliver.


You will need to work with the business areas affected by the change from the beginning, incorporating their objectives and incentives, and be aware that the business case will need to be translated/interpreted for each of the stakeholder groups. Do not expect one articulation of the business case to suit all.


It also helps to focus on the actions that will make a difference fast. Quick, demonstrable achievements help to demonstrate that change will be successful.


There are also the more subtle ways about making change stick, which include the way you manage the implementation of the change. There needs to be an element of excitement about it. This may be by putting someone inspirational at the helm, by putting the change team (business and IT) together in another area of the building (change of environment can help avoid people reverting to their old ‘comfortable’ ways), and involving communication experts to ensure that the change and change progress is communicated in a compelling way.

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