In a recent gathering of quality professionals, the subject of unsuccessful change implementation surfaced. Most people understand change is necessary for survival, but in this era it is happening at an unprecedented, almost vertical rate. The bottom line though is that change is uncomfortable for most and it is common for people to resist change.

Although well-intentioned, improvement projects often lose focus once a solution is found. With seemingly the hard part done, why does the energy disappear, progress stall, and cynicism surface?

Most organizations seek to discover why their best-laid plans unravel. Predictably their efforts focus on the issue of implementation but failing to consider how the improvement steps will be integrated into their associate’s daily work.

Once an effective solution is selected, organizations tend to push the new process on the system. It is not uncommon that as people come to grips with unfamiliar concepts, ideas, and processes, those who manage and work within the system become skeptics, procrastinators, and active resistors.

Those who study human behavior discover a tension within many individuals suffering from internal conflicts. People generally want to improve their lives, but at the same time, they want a life that is stable and without chaos. Therein lies one of the primary sources of the problem.

Organizations must create a culture in which people can speak their minds without fear of reprisal. Dr. W. Edwards Demining, generally recognized as one of the greatest quality experts of the 20th century, stressed that management must drive out fear in the workplace in order that everyone may work effectively.

Organizations must understand the needs of their workforce and the underlying reasons for their resistance. Often, resistance to change is a signal that something is amiss. Careful analysis, therefore, is required before ‘forcing’ a change upon the workforce as this only brings about greater resistance and seldom succeeds.

Failed change means lost opportunities, reduced productivity, decreased quality, lost revenues, higher employee turnover, elevated absentee rates, and increased employee cynicism. Failed change can create a hostile and toxic culture where resistance becomes the normal reaction to change. There is likely no business case that justifies moving forward until resistance is appropriately addressed.

There are many models which identify how to deal with resistance to change but there are a few simple actions. These steps should be specific to the situation and include:

  1. Understand: Fully understand the nature of the resistance. Sometimes it is technology based but often it is human based. People are uncomfortable with change, so organizations need to make participants comfortable and transform them into willing partners.
  2. Communicate: One of the biggest problems identified in many employee surveys is lack of adequate communication of the need for change. Management must ensure that information relative to impending change is continuously communicated but adapted to the message and audience. Focus on the WIIFM (what’s in it for me) message.
  3. Involvement: Involve people early and often. Resistance drops off in proportion to the involvement of the participants. One of my early mentors told me not to expect complete support from any individual who was not personally involved in a change that affected his/her work. It is not physically possible to involve everyone directly but setting up networks intended to reach out to as many people as possible is the next best thing.
  4. Initiate: Create opportunities for smaller but meaningful change. Nothing breeds success like success. Ensure that initial efforts are focused on areas where success and payoff are highly probable. This creates a sense of satisfaction by creating allies.
  5. Support: Provide support for change. Allow associates to voice concerns and open communication channels. Provide reassurance that support will be available throughout the change effort.
  6. Flexibility. Remain flexible and be patient. Change is tumultuous with many ebbs and flows. There may be many challenges, but most can be effectively dealt with through patience, understanding, and remaining flexible with implementation strategies.

With significant change, there are people at all levels who just will not be totally convinced for the need for change. No amount of cajoling, communication, or persuasion will ‘win’ them over. It may be uncomfortable, but these people might have to be moved out of the way or their efforts redirected.

Someone once said that the only people in the world who truly likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. Change is often desirable, frequently necessary, seldom embraced but always inevitable. Everyone must find a way to deal with it effectively.