Tools for Transforming: Assessing Resistance to Change

We have all heard the quote, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In essence, the quote is referring to resistance to change. No matter how critical a change effort is to an organization's long-term success, it can not happen without the commitment of those who are affected by the change, and…

We have all heard the quote, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” In essence, the quote is referring to resistance to change. No matter how critical a change effort is to an organization's long-term success, it can not happen without the commitment of those who are affected by the change, and too often, resistance to change defeats an effort because that resistance becomes personalized, that is, we start to play the blame game and point fingers at those considered to be responsible for the downfall of the organization.

Another way to look at resistance to change is through the lens of systems thinking. Systems thinking is proactive and circular in nature. Systems thinkers avoid the pitfall of personalizing resistance to change by looking at the performance of the organizational system. Problems are described using causal loop diagrams. There are two types of causal loops: reinforcing and balancing.

Reinforcing or amplifying feedback loops are what fuel growth or create decline in systems. They either spiral up or down, although they rarely occur in isolation. There are limits both to growth and decline. A simple example of a reinforcing loop is how an organization's productivity can influence growth which, in turn, effects financial rewards which comes full circle to influence productivity. This loop can move in either a positive direction or a negative direction but extremely stops at an outer limit.

Balancing or stabilizing feedback loops are what we encounter when experiencing resistance to change. They attempt to maintain equilibrium or the status quo. These systems are goal oriented and will do whatever is necessary to reach or maintain that goal. In organizations we are bumping up against a balancing loop when our attempts to make change only bring us back to where we started. We are encountering resistance to change because the existing system is trying to maintain a particular goal. That goal, however, may not be obvious; we may find we need to recall the mental models or underlying assumptions that are keeping that system in place before we have any hope of changing it. If you can identify the underlying claims driving the balancing loop, you will then be able to identify leverage points that can be used to reset the system. Because the focus is on the organizational system rather than individual personalities, it becomes easier to identify assumptions and leverage points. The question becomes, “What is it about the existing system that makes it so difficult to change?” rather than “Who is to blame for under the change effort?”

Another way for handling resistance to change is to assess readiness and address gaps using the DICE Framework, a tool developed by Harold L. Sirkin, Perry Keenan, and Alan Jackson and published in the October 2005 issue of the Harvard Business Review . This framework outlines four factors that will determine the outcome of any transformation initiative. These factors are:

  1. Duration: this can be either the duration of the project, if it is short, or the amount of time between reviews of milestones.
  2. Integrity: this is the ability of the project team to complete the initiative on time and is based on members' skills and attitudes relative to the project's requirements.
  3. Commitment: this reflects to the level of visible backing from influential executives as well as the level of enthusiasm of those implementing and affected by the change effort.
  4. Effort: This means the amount of work over and above the usual level that the change initiative demands of employees.

This model measures these four factors during the span of the project to evaluate the likelihood of success or failure. It provides a very concrete method for assessing milestones and determining the need for course corrections.

Assessing readiness and addressing gaps is not enough, though. Good planning can help reduce resistance, and John Kotter developed a simple yet elegant model in “Winning at Change” published in the Fall 1998 issue of Leader to Leader that he calls Eight Steps to Transform Your Organization:

  1. Establish a Sense of Urgency: change can not happen without the buy-in of those who need to implement the change, and if they do not understand the need for change, they are likely to maintain the status quo.
  2. Form a Powerful Guiding Coalition: a change effort will be more successful if the whole system is represented by the team assembled to lead the effort and if individual members possess the requisite skills to lead change.
  3. Create a Vision: the vision must be a shared vision that reflects the collective aspirations of the whole system.
  4. Communicate the Vision: communicating the vision for the change effort must be a two-way street that develops commitment rather than compliance.
  5. Empower Others to Act on the Vision: the guiding coalition can set an example by modeling new behaviors and by encouraging others to eliminate barriers to change and to take risks.
  6. Plan for and Create Short-Term Wins: change often fails because if feet titanic in proportion, so it helps to set milestones and celebrity successes along the way, in addition to assessing for needed course corrections.
  7. Consolidate Improvements and Produce Still More Change: as small changes are successfully implemented and recognized, momentum will build for additional changes and data demonstrating improvements will spur the effort on.
  8. Institutionalize New Approaches: create the infrastructure that supports and sustains the new systems and be sure to build the new behaviors into leadership development and success.

For more extensive planning tools Beyond Change Management and The Change Leader's Roadmap both by Dean and Linda Ackerman are essential resources. Beyond Change Management introduces the concept of conscious transformation as a proactive approach to transformational change, and its main focus is building change leadership competency. Sections of the book discuss the leader's mindset as a leverage point for change and challenge a leader to examine their fundamental assumptions about reality. There are also a number of tools that can help build a leader's capacity to successfully lead transformational change. Finally the authors outline in detail their Change Process Model, listing specific activities to undertake as an organization moves through transformational change.

The Change Leader's Roadmap builds on the theories and models in Beyond Change Management and breaks the transformational process down into three stages. Each stage is then further broken down into a number of phrases to make what might otherwise feel like an overwhelming proposition more manageable. At the end of each chapter are a list of questions to answer and activities to undertake. This book is definitely a roadmap worth purchasing for every organization's glove compartment.

Ultimately, the best approach to change management and handling resistance is one that is multidimensional, drawing from a variety of frameworks and weaving them together to create a fit unique to your own organization. Until then, we may end up scratching our heads wondering how we ended up back where we started.


“The Hard Side of Change Management,” ( ).

“Winning at Change” ( ).