There’s No Such Thing as Change Resistance

During my first Agile consulting gig, I was working with a pilot team that had 5 developers, 2 testers, and me, as the Scrum Master. We had another external technical coach who was working with us as well.

We were using a technique called planning poker to size up 3 different projects and one person on the team would have none of it! “This is stupid”, he’d say as he threw his cards on the table and stormed out.

This pattern of behaviour escalated to the point where team members came to me, as the Scrum Master who’s job it is to remove impediments, to get this guy off the team.

So I emailed his manager and said we needed someone else because this guy clearly wasn’t interested in this Agile stuff. Within minutes, the manager responded back, copied the disruptive person, and his replacement with, “Biff…YOU’RE OUT….Fred…YOU’RE IN!

Ok, maybe it wasn’t that curt but it was pretty bad. Luckily Biff still sat near us so he was able to vocalize his displeasure of Agile to the point where he took a popular Scrum book, shoved it in my face while yelling “SEE?!?!?! IT SAYS RIGHT HERE I DON’T HAVE TO STAND AT THE STANDUP!!!!

If only I had a 12 step process to manage change resistance, things might have worked out differently. 8-0

The discussions around change resistance aren’t likely to die anytime soon. Change consultants, bloggers, authors, and more won’t let it die because there is money in the discussion. Everyone’s gotta eat, right?

There are a handful of people who take a different view on change resistance and either believe it’s not real or that we, change consultants, are the people who create it with our approaches.

There are enough models that describe why we see symptoms of resistance, and everyone has their favourites:

  • Kubler-Ross: 5 stages of grief
  • Satir: some interpret Chaos as where resistance manifests itself
  • Argyris’ Ladder of Influence: describes a difference in core beliefs
  • William Bridges Transitions: During ending/losing/letting-go, people will resist as they make sense of the new way
  • SCARF: How our brains react to change, sometimes referred to as the fight or flight response

Then there are other models that are created based on a combination of these ideas such as the ORC model, other random modelsProsci’s Flight and Risk model or one of the 9 million ‘change curve’ models Google is storing:

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 8.58.16 AM

All of these models have been created in order to explain someone’s view about their belief of what change resistance is. None of them are right, none of them are wrong, they’re just there to help you make sense of what you see when introducing change.

There are just as many, if not more, articles about how to overcome resistance and every single one of them state best practices for managing change resistance with the same combination of solutions:

  • involve people early
  • communicate openly
  • support people
  • Coerce people (AKA, Brute Force)
  • Training/Education

Unfortunately, those solutions are usually implemented poorly. That is, change managers try to create the perfect plan, including activities for overcoming resistance they know they’ll see, and a rock-solid comms plan to make sure messaging is clear and consistent.

It all sounds good in theory but given the number of forum discussions and posts about change fatigue, change failure, and change resistance, it doesn’t seem like those things are working. Maybe we need a Certified Change Resistance Manager credential.

I’m in the camp that believes change resistance is a myth and we should stop focusing so much attention on it. One, it’s exhausting. Two, it’s not helpful for helping move people forward.

There are three truisms when it comes to change resistance:

  1. The Response: anything new invokes a response. That response happens at different times for different people and happens at varying intensities, with both positive and negative reactions.
  2. The Mess: After the response, there’s the big messy middle part which has less to do with individuals, than it does with how those individuals interact with each other. This is essentially a giant game of sense-making, mixed with political posturing.
  3. The Quiet: The signal has been separated from the noise, or people have stopped caring, or the change worked, or everyone just gave up.

While the models I mentioned can be useful, they’ve all been created in a world where there was more mental stability. Dad worked at the tire factory for 35 years and drank heavily, mom made breakfast and did the ironing, little Jonny played baseball, and little Sally went to finishing school in order to know how to please her eventual husband.

Today we’re bombarded with organizational change, and personal change, so let’s remember those models were created in a different era:

“in developmental psychology, the notion of predictable life stages is toast. Those stage theories reflected a time when most people marched through life predictably” – Carol Tavris, author of Psycobabble and Biobunk.

In any change, one of the models I mentioned has an element of truth to it at one point or another, and one of the change resistance mitigation solutions, can be true at one point or another as well.

The problem is when these models and solutions are presented as being 100% true, 100% of the time, for 100% of the people. These models also imply that everyone is progressing through the same phases of the change, in the same way, and at the same intensity.

So instead of a new model, here are two more stories, the first one being the opening of this post, about what would be called change resistance and what happened.

Get Off My Lawn

First day on the job. As usual, I’m hired to make a team more Agile. First meeting; the team is spinning on a screen design. The Scrum Master asks me for advice. The development manager immediately pipes up and says, “hey, this isn’t a process problem, this is a design problem, he’s only here to help with process.

Maybe he’s in shock, denial, or depression (Kubler-Ross). According to Satir, he’s in chaos because I’m the foreign element. According to William Bridges, he’s losing something. According to SCARF, his sense of status is being violated.

According to me, he’s a smart and logical person (no he doesn’t read my blog so I’m not sucking up), and in his view, I’m an Agile process person.

So I responded with a process answer: “Well, if you guys have a few ideas, the process would be to validate those with the users before you build them.”

Result: The person in question is a positive skeptic. He’s cautious about this Agile stuff because he knows how things work around there and much of what we’re trying to do is incompatible with the organizational norms. The Scrum Master has blindly jumped into this change with both feet. The developer is un-interested. The 3 BA’s are mixed, most are in favour of the change, but it depends on what happens day to day.

Overall, this team is doing very well because they are able to take options I give them, and choose the best ones for their situation. Conventional wisdom says we need to be more Agile, or we need more top-down support, or we need to do some other theoretically correct statement. While change emerges, we don’t know what we need to do next except to expose as many problems as we can to see if the organization is interested in fixing them.

Getting Grin F’ed.

“Welcome new coach!! We’re excited you’re here!!”

Result: Well, that’s as far as we got. After 3 false starts where our initial meetings were canceled last minute, or nobody showed, I fired the team and moved on.

This team was working on an enormously complex project with tight deadlines and it just wasn’t a good time so I told them I didn’t want my time wasted, and I didn’t want to force a change that I didn’t believe would work. Ultimately it was their decision so they said they’d have me help with a retrospective that they might, or might not do in the future. They didn’t do it, and I haven’t heard from them since.

Were they in shock? Denial? Chaos? Depression? I suppose you say their sense of Certainty (SCARF) was violated because changing how they work while trying to deliver such a monstrous project would bring plenty of perpetual uncertainty.

By the way, getting Grin F’ed is the phenomena where the client says all the right things and behaves in the opposite way. You could call it incongruent behavior, but saying “I just got Grin F’ed” is a wonderful coping mechanism for change agents.

No Time!

“We want coaching help, can you give us 30 minutes every two weeks?”

A large organization wanted myself and another coach to help re-invigorate their Agile journey with 4 teams. We took a coaching stance and thought the best approach would be to coach the Product Owners and Scrum Masters from behind the scenes because time seemed to be the biggest barrier for them.

It didn’t work at all. It was confusing for them, and we couldn’t figure out what the problem was.

I suppose they were in frustration (Kubler-Ross), or chaos (Satir), or maybe we were able to relate to them (SCARF) because we were old and they were young. Perhaps that lack of relatedness on our part led to this not working?

A few weeks later one of our colleagues started working with the team and he took a more directive and teaching approach…and it worked. Maybe we primed the teams for it, maybe not.

Sometimes the right time for a change is the right time for a change, and there isn’t a model that can explain it.  And that’s ok too.

The next time you’re asked to create a mitigation strategy for managing resistance, consider these questions:

  1. who’s asking for it, and what will be better for them?
  2. what is it about the approach we’re taking that would be creating the symptoms we’re seeing?
  3. how would it be helpful to move the change forward by focusing on resistance versus focusing on supporting the people who want the change?

Ultimately, our organizations and the way we interact with each other mimics society. When people are tired of the status quo, they lobby to change it. That cannot be goverened by a project budget, schedule and a handful of best practices that make the change managers feel good about their competence.

After all, I’ve never had someone come up to me and say, “thanks for using that model and best practice on me”

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