Customer Experience, Why Resistance is Essential to Transformation
Deploying a new piece of technology is much more than a technology challenge. It’s a change challenge.

A person having a nightmare can do many things in his dream -- run, hide, fight, scream, jump off a cliff, etc. -- but no change from any one of these behaviors to another would ever terminate that nightmare ... Paul Watzlawick, Change.

We’re asking people to change the way they serve customers, the way they work with information and the way they get their jobs done.

Change is the new normal. The pace of change in how customers buy, connect with brands and share their experiences is accelerating. New technologies and new platforms are driving fundamental changes in business models.

And yet as a whole, organizations are still pretty bad at change. Despite all the focus on change in recent years, an astonishing 70 percent of change initiatives continue to fail. We have to get better at change for, as Jack Welch once said “When the rate of change outside exceeds the rate of change inside, the end is in sight.”

What’s behind the high failure rates of change efforts related to technology deployments? According to a Deloitte CIO survey, seven of the top ten barriers to successful systems implementations are human factors. The number one factor CIOs cite? Resistance to change.

When it comes to deploying enterprise software many IT shops remain trapped in a nightmare. A nightmare populated by pesky users who resist change. When we notice this resistance, we draw from a handy toolkit of techniques for managing resistance to change. Executive mandate. Policies. Gamification. Training. Communications. The list goes on.

And yet the nightmare continues.

How can we wake from this nightmare?

“The one way out of a dream involves a change from dreaming to waking. Waking, obviously, is no longer a part of the dream, but a change to a different state altogether.” Paul Watzlawick, Change.

People resist change. Resistance is bad. Therefore we must manage resistance.

We see resistance as the enemy. Something we need to manage and overcome. This captures the essence of the nightmare we’re trapped in. And reveals clues for how we can wake from the nightmare. 

Let’s explore the assumptions trapping us in the nightmare using the question assumption technique I shared in my previous article. What are the assumptions underlying each of the italicized words in these two sentences?

People resist change. Resistance is bad. Therefore we must manage resistance.

People: Who specifically? Who are they and what do they care about? What are some different ways we can understand people by their behaviors, attitudes or wants? What about managers, what role do they play?

Resist: What does resist mean? What specific behaviors and attitudes are we seeing? What are they thinking, feeling or doing that we label using the word resist?

Change: What specific changes are we talking about? Using a new piece of software? Being asked to learn new habits? Being told to do their jobs in a different way? What are all the things we’re including under the umbrella word of change?

Bad: Why bad? What if we saw resistance as a good thing? What if we saw resistance as feedback?

We: Who’s we? Project team? IT? Managers? Stakeholders? Executive sponsors? What about the people we’re asking to change?

Manage: What do we mean by manage? Push harder? Why not harness? Leverage? Learn from? Co-create? Inquiry?

These are just a few ideas starters. Try this exercise with your team to see what assumptions you’re making around resistance. What does it reveal about how your team perceives resistance?

Walk in the shoes of your change targets

“The enemy is a very good teacher.” The Dalai Lama

It can be easy to perceive users as the enemy when they don’t automatically adopt the new technology you just deployed. What if we flipped our view and instead looked at resistance as a good thing? Something to learn from instead of manage?

To be able to do this, the first thing you need to do is get inside the heads of your change targets and try and see the change from their perspective. An empathy map is a simple tool to help you do this. Get together with your team, pick a target group within your organization and fill in this empathy map. Once you've done that, tell a story FROM THEIR PERSPECTIVE of why they don’t want to change.

changing their perspective.png

And then, rather than asking:

How can we make or convince [change target group] do [adopt technology] …

Ask yourself:

  1. How can we make [change target group] badass?
  2. What drives and stops [change target group] to do x at point y?
  3. What are the relevant motivators, enablers, triggers for [change target group] to do x in situation y?
  4. What abilities do they need?
  5. What inspires and motivates them?
  6. How can we inspire them to more and better wants?

Odds are you’ll find a lot of gaps in your understanding that point to the need to further qualitative research. You might end up with something like the following:

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Image source: Customer Experience Methods Guide Workforce Experience Design, Forrester

Map their journey of transformation

You've walked in their shoes. You now have a lot more insight into your enemy. You've gained a feel for what they’re thinking, feeling and doing. Don’t stop here. Next look into the future. Map the journey of transformation they need to take from their current way of thinking, feeling and doing to a new way of thinking, feeling and doing.

How can you support them at each step along this journey? Don’t map this out from the traditional perspective of learning to use a new tool. Map it out from the perspective of that group becoming badass at what they aspire to be.

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Why resistance is natural

The problem with transformation isn't that people resist change. The problem lies in people’s motivation, ability or opportunity to transform from a current work of thinking, feeling and doing to a new way of thinking, feeling and doing.

While people don’t resist change, they do experience resistance. Resistance is hardwired into our brains. And it’s hardwired into the systems that surround us. For resistance is fundamentally about self-preservation. It’s there to keep us safe from real or imagined harm.

So what people are really resisting is:

  • Loss of power or status
  • A heavier workload
  • Looking stupid
  • Things that don’t fit into our mental model of how the world works or how to do their jobs
  • Being forced into doing something we don’t understand
  • Being forced into something they don’t agree with
  • The unknown
  • Being dictated to
  • Possibility of being the odd one out
  • Possibility of negative outcomes
  • Management ideas that seem arbitrary, misguided or unfeasible

Resistance is a label we apply to behaviors and attitudes we don’t agree with, don’t think should be happening or that make our job more difficult. After all, we've deployed the software. The job, as traditionally defined, is done. Time to move on to the next project.

But the job isn't done. The job is only just beginning. Once you've deployed, the hard work of change really kicks into high gear. And to do the job effectively, you need to shift your lens from the change targets you may traditionally have labeled as resisting change onto yourself and your approach. Take a close look at the way you’re interpreting and judging the attitudes and behaviors of your change targets.

Ask yourself:

  1. Are we perceiving the world as it truly is?
  2. Do we truly understand what jobs (functional, emotional, social) people are trying to get done?
  3. Are we inspiring people to more and better wants?
  4. Are we providing people with the opportunity, motivation and ability to transform the way they get these jobs (functional, emotional, social) done?

The problem isn't resistance to change. The problem is our approach to change.

Resistance as feedback

As change leaders, we suffer from the curse of knowledge. We've invested so much time, energy and learning into our change project that we see the world differently than our change targets. We’re approaching the change through rose colored glasses tinted by our expertise, assumptions and mental models.

Resistance reminds us to take off our rose colored glasses and try on the different colored glasses worn by our change targets. A fun way of doing this is to use a tool like Edward de Bono’s six thinking hats.

Resistors wearing the black hat are the devil’s advocate. They excel at spotting difficulties and dangers (real or imagined). Resistors wearing the green hat may bring to the table different ideas about how to accomplish the change goals. Resistors wearing the white hat are detectives who bring to the table information and facts that may reveal gaps, needed improvements or benefits. Resistors wearing the red hat react from their gut, surfacing emotions that reveal the level of buy-in and commitment to the change. Those wearing the yellow hat are the optimistic ones, the ones who seek out the best the change may offer. Dig into their successes, learn from it and spread their positive gossip far and wide.

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And as the change leader, try on the blue hat to facilitate the feedback and learning process.

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Apply double loop learning, using what you learn from this feedback to rethink, reevaluate and reframe your own assumptions and approach, adjusting your actions to compensate.

How will you tackle resistance?

The real enemy when it comes to resistance isn’t users. The real enemy is our own assumptions and approach. To become masters of change we must shift our approach to change.

how will you tackle resistance.png

Image source: The 5 things you need to know about resistance, Luc Galoppin

Instead of managing or fighting resistance, embrace resistance as feedback. Engage with people to discover the underlying forces causing the resistance and change your approach to change to address what you uncover. The next time you find yourself or your team using the word resistance, ask yourself:

Why are we calling this reaction resistance?

If we considered it feedback, what would it tell us that might be useful in refining our approach?

And a final question to leave you with. Is the real challenge of change overcoming resistance? Or is the real challenge inspiring commitment?

If we start a change journey with the question “How do we inspire the commitment of our employees to xyz initiative?” how does that change our entire approach?

Editor's Note: Read more of Joyce's thoughts in CIOs Must Become Design Thinkers