Resistance to change is rational - to the resisters

Spare Change PancakesThe April 2009 McKinsey Quarterly has an article that got my blood boiling by just reading the title, The irrational side of change management.  Fortunately, the article by Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller isn't quite so inflammatory once you actually read it.  (Full text currently available at Scribd)

Most change programs fail, but the odds of success can be greatly improved by taking into account these counterintuitive insights about how employees interpret their environment and choose to act.

The "irrational" in the title has to do with the "counterintuitive" in the summary.  When management designs a change initiative, it makes sense to them, so they don't understand why others resist.  In my naive view of this problem, management haven't bothered to seek out the reasons why the change might be interesting (or not) to the rest of the organization.  Even better: the people in the organization should be involved in designing the change, rather than having something handed to them.

The article covers these elements and several others as it goes through a basic process for change management that McKinsey developed and published in 2003, and then expands into the "counterintuitive insights" mentioned in the summary.  (Bold items are the elements of the basic process from McKinsey. Text is summary of their counterintuitive thinking and my own comments.)

  1. Build a compelling story.  Don't just make the story about what's wrong and the benefits that accrue to the business with the change.  Make the connections for the line workers and managers that have to play by the new rules.  Ask them to help develop the reasoning behind the changes.
  2. Role modeling.  "Be the change you want to see in the world," said Ghandi (p.s. I used that quote in my high school graduation speech a couple decades ago.).  This is great, but many people don't know what they need to change to (or why they need to change in the first place).  So, asking key leaders to become role models needs follow-up with clear direction on how their responsibilities tie to the new way of being in the organization.  As the article says, many people often don't see where they fit into the change.  And I have seen this with clients in the past: getting the front line to do something different is the only thing they understand.  Which leads to the next topic.
  3. Reinforcing mechanisms.  Clearly there needs to be reinforcement, but the less familiar elements here are what appear to be counterintuitive.  Scientists already know that monetary rewards don't work, but this still isn't the common practice in business.  There are stories upon stories where measures / processes are put into place that appear to be logical but that drive the wrong behaviors - often due to perceptions more than realities.  If managers ignore these perceptions as "irrational," then they will always miss the results they desire.
  4. Capability building.  Of  course, people need training.  A key element that is often missed is that when they get back to the "real world," they will also need time to reinforce the new ways of doing things.  If they are already overloaded when a change initiative comes down the halls, a question I like to ask is, "What will they stop doing?"  What can we take off their plates, so they can focus on the new way of working?  This is a key element of change programs.  If you are going to change the business processes, then there had better be old work that stops or significantly changes so that the new work can happen.

So, in the end.  It isn't that people irrationally resist change.  It is that we need to spend more time understanding the impact on people as well as the business.

[Photo: "Spare Change Pancakes" by Jeff Cushner.]

7 Comment(s)

Brett Author Profile Page said:


Your statement "When management designs a change initiative, it makes sense to them, so they don't understand why others resist" is an excellent example of the Curse of Knowledge as described by the brothers Heath in their book "Made to Stick":

Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it.

Involving members of the organization in the development of the change process, as you suggest, avoids this "curse" since now they will also possess the "knowledge" behind the change, and can more easily understand and accept it.

I agree with you and going further, I don't believe people resist change - the want to see their needs acknowledged. I have just blogged about this at my Change Management Blog.

Thanks, Holger. People don't resist change is right. They just don't want to change for the same reasons someone else does... If their needs aren't met, it is obvious that the change won't get their attention. But if I am not looking for their needs, then it looks "irrational" that they won't play along.

Let's also acknowledge that sometimes the change isn't any good and just makes things worse. Change from the top is usually stupid. Most of the truly great cultural transformations come from the bottom, so to speak. Most of the time it is upper management that is resisting the change, not the lower levels.

Thanks, Forrest! What should happen through this process is that the organization discovers whether a change should be done at all. Change for change's sake doesn't help anyone!

Bill Bennett Author Profile Page said:

It's easy to overlook how people have learnt the hard way to be wary of change when it is imposed from the top.

In many cases change can mean people loose their jobs, status, comforts etc. And it doesn't help when management lies about the likely effects of change. Until recently I worked for a company where we were told change was on the way, but it wasn't bad news and no-one would lose their jobs. Within days it was clear many jobs would be cut. In the end 40 percent of the staff were laid off

What are those people, or the colleagues left behind going to think the next time the c word is mentioned?

I've written a piece about the need to keep workers motivated through change at:

central vacuums said:

Great post, its a must read articles for all. Great work Forrest! this post would really help newcomers like me when trying learn more about McKinsey's process. Thanks for sharing, keep on sharing more innovative post like this.

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