How to Teach Old Dogs New Tricks – Inspiring Change in a Resistant Environment

Change is hard. It doesn’t matter whether you are the architect or worker, adapting to a new environment is challenging. Sometimes the resistance is so overwhelming that the plan is abandoned and the status quo remains.

The problem is that without change, growth is impossible. Without growth, companies die. Change is the life force that moves organizations from mediocrity to excellence. Failure to embrace it leads to self-destruction. Innovation is mandatory to thrive in a competitive environment.

In the typical change initiative, there are two leading characters. They play adversarial roles. The first is the architect. She pours her heart and soul into the project. All of her creative juices are flowing. When she is done, she believes that her work will jettison the company so far ahead of the competition they will never catch up.

On the other side, you have the team members who have to make everything work together. They don’t want to be resistant, but enough is enough. One day they’re doing their job the same way as always. The next, there’s a new directive requiring them to change everything. Accepting it is challenging because every time they get used to the new stuff, it changes again. There’s never an explanation or a chance for their opinion, only instructions on how to do it. And, most of the time, the instructions never work the way that they are intended.

In a world where change is the norm, how can you motivate people to embrace it?

It’s simple. Let them own it.

While change is hard, it is even harder to step up and say, “Yes, I contributed to that idea, but it is a bad one.” The best change comes from the bottom up instead of the top down. Roles have to change. Your leadership team has to move from ” here’s the plan, make it work” to “let’s get something started.”

Their role is to issue the challenge, monitor the progress, keep everything moving in the right direction, and cheer the team on. They have to be willing to step aside and let team leaders call plays when necessary. Successful businesses have teams, not dictators.

How do you shift from the traditional change architect model to the team model?

One step at a time. If you have a history of forced initiatives that often fail, it will take time and a lot of effort to transition to a team approach. Here are the steps to move the process along:

  • Identify the natural leaders in each group. It may be the supervisor, but most likely not. These are the people that others glance at during meetings to see their reactions. They are usually the ones with the most resistance to change because it threatens their position of authority.
  • Clearly define the challenges in as simple terms as possible. Position your statements so that your team members can see how the change will benefit them. For example, instead of stating, “we need to improve productivity” ask, “are there any unnecessary steps in the process from order entry to shipment?”, and then listen.
  • Ask the natural leaders for their suggestions. Listen carefully and make sure that you understand their points. Make sure that you incorporate some of their ideas in your initiative. Always remember that they are the ones who have the most effect over the success or failure of the initiative.
  • Get to know all of the team members. Identify where they fit on Roger’s Innovation Adoption chart. In my experience, all team members belong to one of the categories. They may transition from one to another, but they all have a position on the chart.
  • Rogers' Adoption Chart

  • Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Don’t let rumors undermine the process. If there is a success, celebrate it. If there is a problem, explain it and ask for suggestions. Reward the early adapters so that they keep supporting the initiative. Others will follow.
  • There may be a few laggards even after the initiative is complete. If so, meet with them individually to hear their issues. Make every effort to convert them. If they continue to resist the change, termination may be the only recourse. If there are more than a few laggards, revisit the process. Ownership wasn’t transferred.

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