Overcoming Resistance to Change

If change is inevitable, and we're often able to see it coming, why are so many people resistant to it? There are some tried and true ways to help people deal with change, by listening to the reasons for their hesitation, and by making sure people know when they'll be benefitted by the transition.

Ah, change, the one consistent force in the Universe that you can always count on to sneak up and whack you on the head. Dealing with change is a major theme of configuration management, but getting others to go along with change is about as easy as shaving a gorilla's armpit. Why are people so resistant to change and how can you overcome it? It is possible, if you understand a few simple facts of human nature (or if you carry a loaded firearm - that works too). Read on, quickly now, before the layout of this web site changes and you can no longer find this article.

I believe human's resistance to change can be traced to two sources: supermarkets and Microsoft. Have you ever gone into your favorite grocery store to discover that your favorite item is no longer where it should be? One day the rutabagas are right there next to the potatoes, and on your next visit they are nowhere to be found. The store management does this on purpose in the hopes that during your aimless search for the rutabagas, you will stumble into the kitchenware aisle and purchase a gourmet coffee blender at a three hundred percent markup, wiping out your twenty cent coupon savings on the jumbo Charmin pack. At least the grocer has a method to his madness. Microsoft changes things for absolutely no good reason at all. Have you tried Office 2007? Whatever happened to the file menu? What was wrong with it? And don't even get me started on Vista. These kinds of changes drive us to insanity, so no wonder we are resistant to change.

Have you ever had the pleasure of changing a process in a development environment, or implementing a new software tool? This is especially fun if there are people on the team who have been working there longer than dirt. Your first efforts at change are met with rolling eyes and groans. You hear comments like "we've always done it this way" and "this is just another corporate initiative that will fail or change again in a month". There's always at least one guy on the team who still uses a home grown version control program he developed on his TRS-80 computer thirty years ago who will use a new tool only when the old one is pried from his cold, dead hands, thank you very much. As fun as these people are, they are usually not the biggest problem. At least you know where they stand. It is the ones who smile and nod and don't show any resistance at all. They follow Gandhi's example of passive resistance and simply don't follow the new process or use the new tool.

So how do you get people to accept change? The concept is quite simple, really, if you haven't already guessed. You have to prove to them how it will improve their lives by making tasks easier and shorter. You can't tell them this, for they won't believe you. You have to show them. Therefore, the changes you plan on making better really work, or you will ruin your credibility and they will dig their heels in even harder the next time you want to make a change.

Sure, it's a simple concept, but how do you pull it off? Most changes for the better do take some pain to adapt and there is usually a learning curve involved. I have a few suggestions below that should help grease the skids.

    • The first principle of change implementation is free food. Free beer works even better, but someone might throw up on your boss's shoes and get you fired, so you might want to avoid that one. If your budget allows, free baked goods and coffee in the morning and pizza for lunch during training and implementation sessions goes a long way in converting the masses (or at least getting them to show up at meetings).
    • Make sure you have management backing. If the team sees true management commitment behind the changes, they will be more likely to conform, even if against their will. Once the change becomes familiar, the skeptics usually realize it wasn't so bad after all.
    • At the beginning of any change initiative, include all the users who will be affected in the decision making process. If people feel like they were involved from the beginning, they will be much more receptive to adopting the change.
    • Find out your users objections. Why don't they want to change? What is it that they are afraid of? Learn their objections and then come up with examples that will overcome them. Be realistic, though, and don't stretch the truth about how great the changes will be.
    • Spend some one on one time with the biggest resisters. Ask them to show you their current process and what they like about it. Take notes. You will probably identify parts of your new process that will fix things they don't like about the current process, providing real examples on how the change will benefit them.
    • Take baby steps. Don't implement a new tool, a new process, and start a new project all at the same time. Taking on too much change at one time will most likely fail.
    • Divide and conquer. Find users who are adventurous and willing to try out new things and make them part of a pilot group. This increases the chance of success with the pilot, creates a team of eager evangelists to help promote your cause and creates a pool of real life examples you can show the skeptics.

Following these suggestions should help you overcome resistance to change, and you will be revered by management and colleagues alike! Unfortunately, a corporate reorganization will come along and all the people you impressed will be moved into another division and your new management won't have a clue what you did. Ah, change - it's a slippery devil.

Matthew Johnson has over eleven years of experience in the Configuration Management field, with expertise in administrating enterprise level configuration management tools in the medical device industry.  He lives in Southeastern PA with his wife, two little boys and a yellow labrador that is really just a furry stomach with four legs and a head.

About the author

StickyMinds is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.