Dealing with Resistance to Change

    When a consultant begins working with a client, he can face significant resistance to the changes he has been hired to implement.  It becomes a balance of diplomacy and change management when this occurs.  In this week’s podcast, we will explore the types of resistance a consultant can face and some strategies for dealing with it.Resistance to change in consulting

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    1. What types of resistance do you most commonly face from clients?
      1. In most cases the decision to bring in a consultant is a decision made by higher level management at the client.  They see issues with profitability or productivity and want the consultant to come in with ideas for improvement.
      2. Those that weren’t involved in the decision making often see this as just an interruption in their daily routines.
      3. They often think things are moving smoothly and the consultants are simply here disturbing their peace.  We’ve heard the old joke “Hi, I’m from corporate and I’m here to help.” It’s a similar situation.
      4. If you stop and think of the situation from the average Joe Employee’s perspective, he doesn’t see the drop in profitability or even recognize when productivity is low.
      5. He has a job and gets into a daily routine for how he does it.  Suddenly management comes in and says “We’re not satisfied with how things are going and these guys are going to come in, do some analysis and make some changes.
      6. At best, the employee isn’t going to like being under a microscope and having some outsiders come in and disrupt everything they’re doing.
      7. At worst, they begin to get paranoid because many people see consultants and productivity and profitability improvement as management trying to start eliminating jobs.
      8. So you can just see the rumor mill starting and pretty soon the entire company or department is talking about impending cutbacks and when the axe is going to fall.
      9. About the time this starts gaining a little momentum within the office is when the consultants come in and start setting up “information gathering” meetings.
      10. I’ve seen client employees hide information and even give misinformation to avoid cooperating.  I’ve had them miss meetings and we would have to go through multiple iterations of rescheduling.
      11. That’s in a scenario where management consulting is being performed.
      12. Another example is in my field of IT consulting.  We’re usually hired to write or implement a new IT application for the client.  I’ve seen some employees who, although they hate their current system, don’t want to go through the training and other switching costs of learning a new system.
      13. So they find reasons to criticize the new system and essentially launch a negative marketing campaign to the point where everything you try to do at that client becomes a fight.
      14. I’ve seen client employees withhold important information or business requirements causing extensive rework late in the project.
      15. Most of these projects are set up under tight deadlines. So they can figure out lots of ways to cause delays.  This of course makes the project experience cost overruns.  And I’ve seen it to the point where the project gets so expensive that they exceed their budget and management scraps the project.
    2. How do you deal with this type of resistance?
      1. We try to keep an eye open for it from the beginning.  We’ll even talk to client management to find out who might be our biggest risk when it comes to resistors.
      2. Managers often know who within their ranks have power and could start pushing back.  But sometimes it’s a surprise where it comes from.
      3. We recommend to client management to be as transparent as possible to their people.  Any time you start keeping secrets from them, that’s when the rumors start.  Something’s got to fill in those information gaps.
      4. Part of that transparency in making sure the employees know what’s going on is letting them know what is driving the project.  If productivity is down or lower than your industry average, show them statistics.  If your profitability is down you can show that too.
      5. They need to understand that it’s not just about head-count and cutting back on costs.  If there is a driving need for the organization to survive they will understand it much better.
      6. We used to call this the burning platform.  The example we always used was on an oil rig out in the middle of the ocean.  If you’re out there on that platform in the middle of the ocean, you’re in a safe place.  You have no reason to jump into the ocean.
      7. But if the platform starts on fire, that burning platform makes it more unsafe to stay put.  You’ve got a reason to jump onto the water.  We try to create the burning platform to get them to leave their comfort zone and recognize the need to jump into an area where they’re less comfortable.
      8. We also do some visualization.  We have them visualize a world where their job is easier with fewer obstacles.  Where information is more readily available and they can be more productive.
      9. This makes it about the employees and the effect a new software system – or whatever type of project you’re implementing – will have on their everyday lives.  This type of visioning allows the employee to see the finish line and do kind of a cost/benefit analysis in their mind.
      10. They hopefully will realize that by committing to the project, the pain of change and all of the implementation work will remove some of their everyday pain and eventually be worth it.
      11. Another approach I’ve seen be successful is when the client management implement incentives.  That can be in monetary form by awarding people for going above and beyond in helping advance the project.
      12. I also have seen clients put people in leadership roles on the project.  This gives them the incentive that, if they help make the project a success, they will be more likely to be considered for a permanent leadership role once the project is in production.
      13. This is actually one of the most effective ways to get potential nay-sayers on board and leading people in a positive way rather than a negative one.
    3. Do you ever face resistance from the very people that brought you in to facilitate change?
      1. It’s more common than you would think.  I’ve met people who talk a great story about being open to change.  But it’s often a not-in-my-backyard situation.
      2. Change is great for everyone else, but don’t expect me to have to deal with it.  I once had a client that hired us to implement a new software package.
      3. We dealt with three executives in charge of the project.  Any changes we suggested for their employees were fine.  But any time we suggested a change in process or in how they perform their work, that just wouldn’t work there.
      4. For example, one executive had a special report that he was used to receiving.  This had been custom developed by the IT team with tweaks for him whenever he wanted.
      5. The software package had a similar report with all of the same information, but he would have nothing to do with it.  He needed his custom report to be the same.
      6. I remember every time we suggested a change, they would shoot it down with a very thin reason why it just wouldn’t work there.
      7. And then they would add, “And I’m open to change.  Just imagine how these employees will react who aren’t as open to it as I am.”
      8. Because of several other examples like that, they ended up killing the project.  The executives rationalized that the package wasn’t a good enough fit and didn’t meet their needs.
      9. The reality was that the executives were just too resistant to the change that the new software system brought.  It would have served their purposes and improved the whole organization’s productivity if they had just been a little more flexible and open minded and moved forward with it.
      10. This is common among executives actually.  They only think about the benefits and think that the employees are the only ones that need to change, but changes like this are big and can affect virtually every person in the company.
    4. How do you deal with the resistance from the actual sponsor?
      1. You use some of the same approaches as we talked before.  We discuss the benefits, but they’re already aware of those which is why they went forward with the project.
      2. We try to stress that change is going to be prevalent throughout the organization from the bottom to the top.
      3. We stress with them, not only that they will have to be open to change, but give them examples of the change.
      4. I try to be very specific.  I would suggest trying to find out what is most important to them.  Do they have specialty reports or do they like their current reporting structure. No matter what the person’s level is, whether they do clerical work or are the CEO, everyone likes their comfort zone and doesn’t want to change all that they’re comfortable with.
      5. So it’s important to identify those things up front and gauge their resistance levels before you start.  It gives them the heads up that aspects within their comfort zone will change and it gives you a heads up on their resistance to change.
      6. It’s a matter of expectation setting, education and a fairly persistent marketing campaign to get them to realize that everyone has to deal with change, not just their employees.
      7. But they have to see the value of it.  That’s part of the marketing campaign.  There’s a fair amount of psychology to it too.  You have to balance the right amount of pushing them to change without putting too much pressure on them.
      8. One of the approaches I’ve seen used is to only implement incremental changes. A little change here and a little there allows them to change gradually and developing a new comfort zone before another one goes away.
      9. For example, I’ve seen clients say they don’t want to do away with some aspect of their current system, like the report I mentioned earlier.  We might suggest, “How about if we implement the new one temporarily.  Then after we go live, we address developing one like the one you had before.”
      10. Nine times out of ten, they learn to work with the new report and end up liking it.  When you address creating their old report weeks later, they realize they really didn’t need it.
      11. I’ve also seen companies that don’t develop any of the old reports.  They wait until they go live and see which reports actually get requested during production.  Most of the reports aren’t even asked for, which shows how people just get used to receiving them and don’t stop to think about their practical use.
      12. People become creatures of habit and just do things because they’ve always done them that way.
    5. In what other ways do you deal with resistance to change?
      1. Well it’s not always about what you’re implementing.  Sometimes it can be about your approach.  I’ve been at clients where we’ve been contracted, in part for our methodology or project management approach.
      2. It’s different from how they’ve always done it and they want to go back to their bad habits.
      3. Sometimes it’s just passive resistance, where they just don’t do something unless you specifically request it.
      4. The kind of work this under the radar resistance that you don’t notice until it’s too late.
      5. I’ve found that those who are just not on board, they go through the motions.  So you have to stay on top of things and make sure they don’t slip back into old habits.
      6. But that’s definitely the hardest resistance to monitor because they give the outward appearance of cooperation. But in the back of their mind they’re not bought-in and when you’re not looking, they’re doing things the way they’ve always done them.
    6. Final thoughts on resistance to change?
      1. Anyone who has raised children has learned the concept of picking your battles.  If all you do is inflict your will on the child, they just end up being more and more rebellious.
      2. It’s similar when implementing change at a client.  They’re bound to be resistant.  Your job is to make sure the resistance doesn’t turn into rebellion.
      3. If you just cram the changes down the organization’s throat, they’re apt to just push back even further.
      4. But if you implement change in a cooperative environment that takes their needs and input into account, you’re more apt to get their buy-in and cooperation.
      5. It can be something of a psychological game to gradually get them to jump off that platform outside of their comfort level, so they can develop a new comfort level with a new system or a new approach.

    Next week’s topic:

    When Projects Go Bad

    Recommended Books:

     Change Management: The People Side of Change
     Visual Leaders: New Tools for Visioning, Management, and Organization Change

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    Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting

    Consulting 101 provides you with 101 useful tips to optimize your professional performance and jump-start your consulting career with success.


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