Resistance is Futile (except when it works)

Sep 19, 2010 No Comments by

I hear the term “resistance” a lot when helping clients implement change.  Not surprisingly, I hear it more from those at the top who are trying to make the change happen – than from those in the field who are allegedly practicing resistance… Reminds me of the famous (and obvious) plot line of Star Trek: The Next Generation…

Not all change is inevitable. Not all Resistance is real. Not all Resistance is futile either! (The Borg appears courtesy of Paramount Television)

The Borg: “We are the Borg. Lower your shields and surrender your ships…

…Resistance is futile.”

Lt. Commander Worf: (As he prepares to fire his weapon) “Assimilate this!”

A long battle ensues, but eventually The Borg gets hold of the Captain, executive alignment goes out the window and the entire mission to boldly go and explore strange new worlds becomes an adventure in survival… but that’s another story.

Is it Really Resistance?

As Change Leaders and Change Agents approach a stakeholder (or group) that’s pushing back on their change, I encourage them to step back, set phasers to stun and evaluate it before blasting them away or writing them off.  Consider these two facets of what you suspect may be resistance:

  1. How legitimate is the stakeholder’s point?
  2. What’s the potential impact if they’re right?

Is it Legit? So do they have a good point or are they just whining? Invest in a little research and you may find that your stakeholders are trying to share a bit of valuable information which could prevent a train wreck.  Consider these examples from the two ends of the spectrum:

  • …you didn’t realize your effort to streamline the shipping process runs afoul of a regulation to prevent hazardous cargo interaction.  The guys in the warehouse deal with this stuff all the time and saw the risk immediately.  Their “resistance” is legit.
  • …your new work flow eliminates the need for a manual review of low-cost transactions by the budget department because the system can check this automatically and produce all the necessary compliance reports.  The Budget department sees this as a risk but it turns out to be plain old fear of obsolescence.  (aka: “part of my job is going away”)

Check their facts. Ask their peers. Listen for details without prejudging the stakeholder’s motives.  If upon further review, you find they’re just trying to preserve the status quo, take appropriate action.  If their point is valid – address it before moving forward. Instead of being futile, the “resistance” is trying to help you avoid significant trouble downstream.

What’s the potential impact if they’re right? It’s hard to eliminate all risk or resistance while implementing meaningful change.  Evaluate the reported risk for its potential to derail the change if in fact it’s true. Examples of how to gauge the scale of impact include:

  1. How many plants, locations, employees or customers will this effect?
  2. How much money could it cost to undo the damage?
  3. Will it really place us outside of regulatory compliance?

What to Do? Once we get answers to those two questions, I use a handy grid that I’ve developed with rules of thumb for what to do about the situation:

Consider these suggestions for each of the four resistance scenarios:

1. Probably Not Legitimate + Limited Impact (if true): It’s a nuisance.  Ignore it. It will probably blow over and the potential damage is negligible anyway.

2. Probably Not Legitimate + High Impact (if true): Check how well your stakeholders are aligned on the intent and details of your change.  It could be that the high impact risk they raise is actually rooted in a misinterpretation of what’s changing.  It could also mean that the people who defined the change actually missed a significant risk and need to “change the change” to mitigate that potential downside.

3. Legitimate + Limited Impact (even if true): Acknowledge the risk presented by the stakeholders and address it appropriately – but don’t spend significant time or resources trying to swat every fly in the jungle.  Monitor the risk and use my final suggestion below if the potential impact eventually warrants the investment.

4. Legitimate + High Impact (if true): They’re trying to save your bacon.  Slow down the pace of your change  while you build a better way to reach your goal.  Consider shuffling scope or schedule expectations. Do this stuff ONLY if the risk identified by the stakeholder(s) proves to be real and the potential damage  would truly be significant.

So not all change is inevitable.  But the kind that’s being hindered by resistance in the form of false risks is probably going to get pushed through.

Not all resistance is futile. Some of it is meant to keep you and your change initiative from disaster.  Listen and adapt – or prepare to be assimilated into the long list of failed changes that ignored valid stakeholder warnings.


Question for Chatter:

  • Have you seen Change Leaders or Change Agents miss a legitimate negative impact by writing it off as simple resistance?  What price did they pay?

Incoming search terms:

  • the borg

Change Agent Skills, Change Execution, Change Leadership, Stakeholder Readiness

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I help people and teams succeed with big changes... never a dull moment!
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