Why Change Seems So Hard: Essay on facilitating buy-in and avoiding resistance

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How do we manage change in our organizations? Not very well, apparently. According to statistics, the success rate for many planned change implementations is low: 37 percent for Total Quality Management; 30 percent for Reengineering and Business Process Reengineering, and a whopping 3% for some software implementations. Regardless of the industry, situation, levels of people involved, or intended outcome, change seems carry a real possibility of failure:

  • Internal partners fail in attempts to promote and elicit proposed initiatives across departments.
  • Leaders get blindsided by unknowns, creating more problems or becoming part of the problem when attempting to find a fix.
  • The change process unwittingly disrupts and harms people, relationships, and initiatives.
  • Improper, or non-existent, integration between developers and users cause lack of buy-in and resistance.
  • The change doesn’t get adopted as conceived, with financial and personal fallout.

Change initiatives can be far more successful if we include systems thinking in our change management models.

THE SYSTEMS ASPECT OF CHANGE

I believe change is a systems problem. But let me start at the beginning with my definitions of change and systems.

CHANGE: Change is a new set of choices that cause the existing components to exhibit altered Behaviors while still maintaining balance. In other words, no change will occur unless the original system reorients itself in a way that incorporates and maintains its foundational and accepted norms.

In other words, all change must include a way for the elements – the existing behaviors, roles, policies etc. – to buy-in to, and incorporate, new outputs while maintaining the rules and Beliefs of the foundational status quo.

SYSTEM: Any connected set of elements that agree to, and are held together by consensual rules and Beliefs that generate a unique set of Behaviors that exhibit a unique identity. Because change represents risk to the status quo, systems defend themselves by resisting when feeling threatened.

In order to facilitate congruent change, it’s necessary to get agreement from all who will touch the final solution. A good way to encourage this is to not only include everyone (including front line workers) in the problem definition and brainstorming of possible solutions, but to develop a path forward (There are specific, sequential steps in all change processes.) that is agreeable to all.

Buy-in and sequenced discovery ensures the core identity, Beliefs, and rules of the original system is maintained. When leaders define the problem and solution and then attempt to get agreement, they run the risk of insulting the core Beliefs that are the very foundation of everyone’s jobs.

Too often change is approached with an eye on altering activity and Behaviors without ensuring that the core system maintains balance, thereby putting the system at risk. When we attempt to push Behavior change before eliciting core Belief change, we

  • cause the system to defend itself (i.e.resistance);
  • overlook helping the system design it’s own version of congruent change;
  • are left managing the fallout when the stable system is forced to defend itself.

Herein lies the problem: until or unless the full complement of relevant elements (those that created and maintain the problem and will be affected by the new) agrees to change, the system will resist change regardless of the problem that needs fixing. The system is sacrosanct.

Here’s where change agents face problems: In general, outsiders cannot know what norms must be maintained. Change is an inside job.  Congruent, resistance-free change must teach the system how to change itself. My new book How? explores this topic thoroughly.

Sample

ALL CHANGE MUST ADDRESS SYSTEMS

Most influencing professions (leadership, coaching, consulting, sales etc.) begin with a goal to be met, adopt an outside-in approach that uses influence, advice, ‘rational’ scientific ‘facts’, and use various types of manipulation to inspire change – while ignoring the fact that anything new, any push from outside the system, represents disruption.

We put the cart before the horse, attempting to change Behaviors and elicit buy in before the system is certain it won’t be compromised. Until the system knows it will remain in balance, whatever problem is being resolved will continue as is: it’s already built into the system:

  • The full complement of elements that created the existing problem must be assembled and recognized;
  • Everyone/everything within the system must accept that it’s not possible to fix the problem with known resources;
  • All of the elements (people, policies, rules, relationships, etc.) that will be affected by a new solution – i.e. change – must understand, buy-in to the ways they’d be changing to ensure they end up balanced.

Until all that happens the system will resist change (or buying, or learning, or eating healthy or or) regardless of the level of need or the efficacy of the solution. Indeed outside influencers actually cause resistance.

By we can actually lead Others through to their own change:

  • Maintain Functional Stability. Any change initiative must maintain the foundational balance of the original system. The current functioning, even when problematic, has been finely honed over time, waking up every day maintaining the Behaviors, rules, goals, etc. that created the problem to begin with. Change is not so simple as shoving in a new Behavior.
  • Achieve Buy-In. For a system to be willing to change successfully, to avoid resistance, a system must understand the risk of change; recognize exactly what fallout will occur when anything is added, and how each affected element must modify to maintain the integrity of the system. I can’t say this enough: the system is sacrosanct, quite separate from whatever reasons an influencer uses to change it.
  • Maintain Underlying Rules and Beliefs. Great data or solutions, important needs or dangerous consequences do not influence change if they run counter to the system’s Beliefs and rules, overt or covert. (It’s why your Uncle Vinny still smokes with lung cancer, and why training doesn’t cause new behaviors.) Here’s a tip: when you start from inside, by changing the existing Beliefs, new behaviors will automatically accompany them.
  • Avoid Risk. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work the other way ‘round: when we attempt to push a new Behavior into the system – say, asking a heart patient to change her diet or exercise program – before eliciting Belief change from the entire system, we will achieve resistance as it may be seen as a threat.

Note: the issues that must be addressed for change without resistance are the same regardless of the problem or number of people of people involved – a company resisting reorganization, a patient refusing meds, a user group resisting new software, a buyer who hasn’t figured out how to buy, or a group not taking direction from company leadership. As outsiders we too often push for our own results and actually cause the resistance that occurs.

It’s possible to use our positions as outside influencers eschew our bias and be real Servant Leaders and teach the system how to manage its own change.

CASE STUDY: SYSTEMS ALIGNMENT

Here is a case study that exhibits how to enable buy-in and change management by facilitating a potential buyer through her unique series of steps to change.

I was with a client in Scotland when he received a call from a long-standing prospect – a Learning and Development manager at a prodigious university with whom he’d been talking for 11 months – to say, “Thanks, but no thanks” for the product purchase. After three product trials that met with acclaim and excitement, an agreed-upon price, and a close relationship developed over the course of a year, what happened? The software was a perfect solution; they were not speaking to any other providers; and price didn’t seem to be a problem.

At my client’s request, I called the L&D manager. Here is the conversation:

SDM: Hi, Linda. Sharon-Drew here. Is this a good time to speak? Pete said you’d be waiting for my call around now.

LR: Yes, it’s fine. How can I help? I already told Pete that we wouldn’t be purchasing the software.

SDM: I heard. You must be so sad that you couldn’t purchase it at this time.

LR: I am! I LOVE the technology! It’s PERFECT for us. I’m so disappointed.

SDM: What stopped you from being able to purchase it?

LR: We have this new HR director with whom I share a leadership role. He is so contentious that few people are willing to deal with him. After meeting with him, I get migraines that leave me in bed. I’ve decided to limit my exposure to him, discussing only things that are emergencies. So I’ve put a stop to all communication with him just to keep me sane. He would have been my business partner on this purchase.

SDM: Sounds awful. I hear that because of the extreme personal issues you’ve experience from the relationship, you don’t have a way to get the necessary buy-in from this man to help your employees who might need additional tools to do their jobs better.

LR: Wow. You’re right. That’s exactly what I’ve done. Oh my. I’m going to have to figure that out because I’ve certainly got a responsibility to the employees.

SDM: What would you need to know or believe differently to be willing to work through the personal issues and figure out how to be in some sort of a working relationship with the HR director for those times your employees need new tools?*

LR: Could you send me some of these great questions you’re asking me so I can figure it out, and maybe use them on him?

I sent her a half dozen *Facilitative Questions to facilitate a path to a collaborative partnership with the HR Director. Two weeks later, Linda called back to purchase the solution. What happened?

  1. While the university had a need for my products solution, the poor relationship between the HR director and the L&D director created hidden, ongoing dysfunction. The information flow problem could not be resolved while the hidden problem remained in place – details not only hidden from the sales person but used as a deterrent by Linda (who resolved the problem by walking away). So yes, there was a need for the solution and indeed a willing partner, but no, there was no buy-in for change.
  2. The only viable route was to help her figure out her own route to a fix.
  3. This was not a sales problem but a change management issue. I helped Linda resolve her own problem. Current change management models attempt to rule, govern, constrict, manage, influence, maintain the change, rather than enable the system to recognize and mitigate its own unique (and largely unconscious) drivers and change itself congruently.

Linda was willing to do something different once she knew how to avoid personal risk.

Rule: Until or unless people grasp how a solution will match their underlying criteria/values, and until there is buy-in from the parts that will be effected from the change, no permanent change will happen regardless of the necessity of the change, the size of the need, the origination of the request, or the efficacy of the solution.

Too often change management initiatives have two major drawbacks: they assume that a ‘rational’, information/rules-based change request and early client engagement will be enough to inspire change; they forget that until the proposed change meets the foundational values and Beliefs of the culture, the status quo prevails.

Rule: Whether it’s sales, leadership, healthcare, coaching or change management, until or unless the folks within the system are willing to adapt to, and adopt, the requested change using their own rules and Beliefs, they will either take no action or resist to maintain the system.

Until the elements within the system understand the risks of the proposed change, they cannot agree to it. Too often, outsiders try to push change when it doesn’t match the unspoken rules and Beliefs.

Rule: Until the risks that a proposed change are known and agreeable, until it’s understood that the risk of the change is less than the risk of staying the same, no change will occur.

BUY-IN: A REAL WORLD EXAMPLE

Joseph, a coaching client of mine, was a CMO in a small company (around 150 employees) that had a problem: He wanted to implement a new customer-service initiative but had just joined the company and was fearful of making waves. He initially wanted to design the project, issue edicts, and fire those who didn’t comply with the initiative. After casually speaking with a few people about it, he got huge resistance.

He called me in when he realized he had to choose between enforcing the Behaviors and outcomes he had in mind, or creating the structure and teaching the employees how to design their own process. I helped him build a creative structure for change, starting with Joseph listing his baseline criteria and then leading the team through to decisions that would:

  1. Maintain the company’s integrity, professionalism, and level of service;
  2. Design a mix between technology and human interaction;
  3. Provide customers with better access to more data, have ease of use for any information they needed, and meet their needs more proactively;
  4. Create award-winning service that would differentiate the company from all competitors and keep customers over time.

He called a meeting with the entire company – even groups that the change process wouldn’t necessarily touch – and told them that he was thinking about expanding the customer service operations. He asked everyone to take a few hours to discuss, think about, and brainstorm what it could look like if they had an unlimited budget (which they didn’t have, but it would eliminate the money piece from their brainstorming), and said he’d meet with them the next week to get their ideas.

He told them that this process was highly important, and he wanted it to be part of people’s daily discussions over the next week. He asked that each group have a spokesperson and historian to keep track of all ideas.

The next week, Joseph met with employees again and asked for their input. He captured the ideas by audio and put them up on an interactive website and told people to add their thoughts. He then sent them back in a link, asking folks to consider the ideas offered and generate even more.

At the next meeting, he asked workers to take all of the ideas now floating around and use them to brainstorm what the new initiative would look like, who might do what, what would have to change, and what the change would look like for those involved. He asked them to consider:

  1. What jobs would change? What jobs would be added/subtracted – and what would happen with the people whose jobs might be affected?
  2. What needed to stay the same internally, no matter what? And how could this be included in the new initiative?
  3. What might be the possible fall-out from the staff and from customers?
  4. What could get in the way of a successful change initiative?

Eventually, employees got into teams and developed solid implementation plans. Those folks who had to change jobs or had their work significantly restructured in a way that might cause resistance joined a management team and became part of the solution. And throughout the process, I listened carefully to hear points of discontinuity so we could stop and go through their internal examination of their steps to change.

Did Joseph get everything he wanted? Well, yes and no. The new organization ended up far exceeding anything he had conceived. It had more creativity and leadership. It also cost more than he realized (time and money) to put everything in place. But it elicited buy-in from everyone: there was no resistance because everyone had bought in to the idea and made it their own. And over a short amount of time, the change paid for itself.

This is only one method of facilitating change and avoiding resistance. I’ve developed a Change Facilitation model, used often in sales as Buying Facilitation®, that uses a unique skill set to enable core change. I’ve trained this to Senior Partners at recognized consulting firms, farmers in Iowa, tech people in Hong Kong, coaches in Kansas. It’s a generic model that influencers can use to elicit real change. I’m happy to discuss it with you. ([email protected]).

Conclusion

Before introducing any change initiative, give up the need to push the change, listen without bias, and enable Others to traverse their route to discovery:

  • what elements created and maintain the status quo,
  • who needs to be included (often a larger group than anticipated),
  • recognize what would get in the way of success and what needs to happen to mitigate that interference,
  • figure out how to manage the workarounds in place that attempt to mitigate the problem,
  • notice levels of buy-in and help those who resist shift their personal criteria to become part of the group,
  • get agreement, steps, criteria, and Behaviors for an intact, non-resistant, functioning system that welcomes the new initiative. Then introduce the change.

Until now, we’ve assumed that resistance is a normal part of the change process. But we’ve effectively been pushing our own biased needs for change into a hidden system. We’ve forgotten that the change we are suggesting will encounter resistance if it doesn’t match the system of the original culture. It’s possible to get buy-in without resistance. Change really needn’t be hard.

Sharon-Drew Morgen
I'm an original thinker. I wrote the NYT Bestseller Selling with Integrity and 8 other books bridging systemic brain change models with business, for sales, leadership, communications, coaching. I invented Buying Facilitation(R) (Buy Side support), How of Change(tm) (creates neural pathways for habit change), and listening without bias. I coach, train, speak, and consult companies and teams who seek Servant Leader models.

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