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Guided Insights helps global project teams speed time to results through better collaboration across time zones, cultures and other boundaries. Special areas of focus are remote team leadership, facilitation skills, virtual team collaboration, project jumpstart workshops and design and facilitation of virtual meetings.
Improving Business Process Performance: Gain Agility, Create Value, and Achieve Success
The 12 Pillars of Project Excellence: A Lean Approach to Improving Project Results, Adil F. Dalal, ISBN 9781439849125, $64.95
IT's All about the People: Technology Management That Overcomes Disaffected People, Stupid Processes, and Deranged Corporate Cultures, Stephen J. Andriole, ISBN 9781439876589, $69.95
Ethics and Project Management, Ralph L. Kliem, PMP, ISBN 9781439852613, $69.95
The Strategic Project Office, Second Edition
Green Project Management
Leadership Principles for Project Success, Thomas Juli, ISBN 9781439834619, $69.95

Organizational Change: Ignore Roadblocks at Your Peril

Nancy Settle-Murphy

You're running late (as usual) to drive to your next appointment, and bam! In front of you is a huge, and entirely unexpected, roadblock. You swear there were no warning signs (well, maybe you were a bit distracted on a very important call). You see detour signs, but have no idea where they'll take you, or how long it will take. (Naturally, in your hurry to get out the door, you left your GPS at home.) At this rate, you'll already be late, so you can't afford a misstep.

What are your choices? You can try to drive around the roadblock, but have no idea what lies down that road (a police officer with a ticket in hand, or perhaps a crater that can swallow up your car?). You can follow the detour signs and hope they bring you down the most efficient route. Or you can tap into your internal compass (if indeed you have one) to work out your own route. Or you might stop someone to ask for directions, assuming you trust their sense of direction. And of course, you can always turn around and go home.

We all have different ways of dealing with roadblocks, based on our personalities, perceived sense of urgency, navigational abilities, experience dealing with similar roadblocks, and other factors. And so it is when we encounter resistance to organizational change, a very particular type of roadblock, that tends to stop even the most experienced leaders in their tracks.

Just as drivers must determine how best to handle different types of roadblocks that block their paths, so, too, must company leaders learn how to anticipate and address resistance to organizational change. In this article, I offer tips for determining just how formidable that roadblock is, and deciding which interventions make the most sense to remove the roadblock, or at least to minimize the inconvenience.

  • Is the roadblock a mirage? Are you starting to see roadblocks everywhere you turn just because you expect to? Perhaps you have heard second-hand anecdotes about a few negative responses and assume that these naysayers represent everyone. Or maybe some people are alarmed at one relatively small aspect of the upcoming change, but they're probably okay with the rest of it. Take the time to assess the true nature and extent of any potential resistance by polling a range of representative stakeholders. Make sure to use neutral language, open-ended questions, and a combination of methods, blending both written and verbal interviews to accommodate different languages, time zones and communication styles. Best to have someone who's perceived as objective and credible do the asking, with assurance of anonymous responses, if needed, to spur candid feedback.
  • Can you plow through it? It's possible that a few well-timed, persuasively-worded messages can help you bulldoze your way through a roadblock, especially if it's not very high. For example, suppose your organization is rolling out a new way to get IT support, and the key objection seems to be the addition of an extra step before being able to access a live person. If you explain that this extra step can save the organization some serious money on support costs, or will actually expedite the time to resolve most IT issues, chances are most people will go along with that one extra step without a lot of fuss.
  • Who can remove the roadblock? If it's too formidable to get through it, you probably won't be able to move this roadblock without help. Enlist assistance from those who are most likely to resist change, as well as those who can influence the most intractable resisters. Ask those most affected by the change what it would take to get on board with it. For example, if your company is revamping its performance metrics, people probably need to be convinced that new metrics are fair and objective before they can embrace them. Ask first-line supervisors and others who are regarded as credible gatekeepers for help in assuaging concerns. Give them the tools they need to do this, such as relevant scenarios they can walk through, a comprehensive set of frequently-asked questions (with clear, credible answers), a simple script, and a reliable path they can use to get quick answers to tough questions.
  • How much time to allow for detours? Face it: Some roadblocks are just not going to budge, even with an army of people and a backhoe. When the change is likely to strike fear (or at least a highly unsettling feeling) in the hearts and minds of most people, factor in a big chunk of time and energy to effectively address the resistance you're sure to face. Include a communications pilot as part of your rollout plan. Stage a mini-launch with a representative sample of affected employees, and give yourself time to collect feedback to make changes. (If you don't give yourself time to incorporate pilot feedback, you may as well skip the pilot. And you'd be doing so at your own peril!) If you assume, with unfounded optimism, that no roadblocks lay ahead, you're sure to take the longest and most arduous path to a successful transition.
  • How to make the roadblocks just go away next time? The fact is, a change of any substance will upset at least some people, even those who stand to gain the most. The trick is to minimize the number and size of the roadblocks so you'll spend much less time and energy getting through them next time. Anticipate which people (by function, job, organizational affiliation, demographic profile, location, or other classification) are likely to feel most affected by the change. Invite a representative sample of these folks to be part of your planning process early on. Let them in on the anticipated change, and ask them what they think. Does it make sense? What will be the easiest part to accept? The toughest? Who's in the best position to favorably dispose people to the change? Bounce ideas and messages off of these people all along the way. Not only will they give you valuable insights, but they may end up being your most ardent champions and visible supporters.

According to Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became our country's Abolitionist leader: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." The greater the change, the mightier the struggle. Take the time to anticipate and plan for the roadblocks that come in the form of resistance to change. You'll still encounter some struggles, especially if the change is big, but you'll create a much shorter, smoother path to progress.

More Articles by Nancy Settle-Murphy

How Virtual Leaders Can Help Others Thrive in a World of Complexity

How to Disengage Your Virtual Team in 10 Easy Steps

Talk Trumps Text for Harnessing Hidden Know-How

About the Author

Nancy Settle-Murphy is a facilitator of remote and face-to-face meetings, trainer, presenter and author of many articles and white papers aimed at getting the most out of remote teams, especially those that span cultures and time zones. Go to Nancy's Guided Insights Web site for more information about her services, including workshops and webinars.

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