"Change is the law of life, and those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future."
- John. F. Kennedy
"If you want to succeed, you should strike out on new paths rather than travel the worn paths of accepted success."
- John D. Rockefeller
One does not have to look far to witness companies struggling with change. A recent Wall Street Journal article announced a major reorganization at P&G citing "sluggish performance" as the reason for change. General Motors, Kodak and Motorola have made headlines too for their difficulties in breaking away from "worn paths." Others, such as GE, Chrysler and Microsoft, prosper by embracing change and continuing to "strike out on new paths."
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
Given that change is essential, why the opposition? Research identifies numerous reasons. By human nature, individuals often fear the unknown. In addition, not all employees recognize the need for change. For some, change gives rise to feelings of lost security. Others may view change as a threat to power or control. Spread of rumor rather than communication of fact can also lead to resistance. Additional reasons for resistance might include the sense that the timing isn't right or perceptions that the organization doesn't have adequate resources for dealing with change.
Regardless of the cause, resistance can be powerful. Author Rick Maurer indicates that more than 50 percent of all change efforts fail. The reason? Resistance. Maurer describes various forms:
- Confusion - not realizing that change will take place.
- Immediate criticism - rejecting the change prior to understanding the details.
- Denial - refusal to accept that things have changed or must change.
- Malicious compliance/sabotage - taking deliberate actions to undermine change.
- Easy agreement - saying yes, without fully realizing to what one has agreed.
- Deflection - a diversion tactic in hopes that the issue will go away.
- Silence - failure to give any input. This form of resistance may be the most difficult to overcome.
SUCCESSFULLY OVERCOMING RESISTANCE
Proper communication is crucial to overcoming opposition. William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions, indicates a justification for change must provide employees with the four P's:
- Purpose - Why is change necessary?
- Picture - What is the expected outcome?
- Plan - How will it be accomplished?
- Part - What role will individuals be asked to play?
Involving people in the process can lead to additional commitment while disarming pockets of resistance. Holding regular update meetings or offering seminars on dealing with change are good examples of ways management can keep employees informed and help them cope with change. Structuring incentives to reinforce the desired change can prove particularly helpful as well.
FRAME-BREAKING VS. EVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
Research suggests that most companies develop through long periods of evolutionary change punctuated by less frequent frame-breaking change. When frame-breaking change is required, the urgency to act may not allow time for an orderly process. A busi-ness in crisis does not have the luxury of coaxing unwilling participants - change must be swift and resistance cannot be tolerated.
In some cases symbolic actions are needed to demonstrate that resistance is not an option. The crisis may even dictate the need for new faces, driving home the message that there is no turning back.
Whether a business faces the need for evolutionary or frame-breaking change, a change agent can be helpful in the process. This change agent could be a designated individual or team within the company, or it could be an outside resource. The key, however, is commitment from the top. Team members must first see that the owner, CEO and/or president is committed to the change.
HERITAGE AUTOMOTIVE - FOLLOWING WORN PATHS
A long-standing wholesaler in the automotive industry had built its reputation over the course of several family generations. Fiscally conservative, the company had grown slowly over time, developing into a large regional company with a solid reputation and many branches.
Gradually the pace of industry change quickened. Most notably, rapid advancements in technology were making it easier to manage far-flung, multi-branch operations. Consolidation within the industry increased as larger competitors bought up smaller ones.
Management and employees resisted change, opting instead to basically "do business the way we have always done it." While some incremental changes were implemented, the company would not rethink its basic business model. Most of its employees didn't see the need for dramatic technological change - it was argued that the company's reputation and hard work would negate any need for change. Consequently, two major obstacles stood in the way of this company's successful change - failure to see the need and fear of the unknown.
Though the company remained in business, it did not prosper. Struggling to compete with more efficient and cost effective competitors, its morale deteriorated along with profitability. Ultimately, the very existence of the company was threatened as it continued down a worn path rather than redefining a new one.
VISION CONSTRUCTION - EMBRACING NEW PATHS
The owner of a privately held construction firm knew her business needed to change. However, the threat was not immediate. In fact, recent financial results were among the best the company had ever achieved. Like JFK, she knew if she looked only to the present she was certain to miss the future.
Strategic analysis of the industry demonstrated that if this company did not make changes, its position would soon be in danger. The owner's progressive nature allowed the company to change during a time of strength rather than in a time of crisis.
Employees resisted. As one remarked, "We are doing great, why change?" Another commented, "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" Yet another said, "I'm comfortable with things the way they are."
Fortunately, the owner would have none of it. She involved others in the process, was willing to share information openly and the four P's were communicated. Finally, she incorporated incentives to reward successful implementation. Because of her ability to drive change, the success of the company continued.
GO FOR IT
It is much easier to talk about change than to accept or implement it. Armed with the understanding that opposition to change is inevitable, you can succeed if you are willing to be creative in addressing the causes of resistance. In the end, as Winston Churchill said, "It is no use saying, `We are doing our best.' You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary." The long-term success of your business depends on it.
The two vignettes are fictionalized adaptations of real situations
'Blanchard, Ken. "How to Overcome Resistance to Change." Profiles of Success. 1996. http://www.smartbiz.com/sbs/arts/pos7.htm (29 Sept. 1998).
Bridges, William. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1991.
Mariotti, John. "Troubled by resistance to change? Don't fight it, try to understand it." Industry Week 7 Oct. 1996: 30.
Maurer, Rick. Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Austin, Texas: Bard, 1996.
Tushman Michael L., William H. Newman, and Elaine Romanelli. "Convergence and Upheaval: Managing the Unsteady Pace of Organizational Evolution." California Management Review 24.1 (Fall 1986): 29-44