Overcoming Resistance to Change in Process Work

Change Management Connected Organization Process
BY JAMES HASS

Resistance to Change is a Recurring Story  

“A scientist and a lawyer walk into a process workshop.” 

While the characters change from workshop to workshop, the plot is eerily similar. Two co-workers with different roles are discussing a shared process—developing an Informed Consent Form at a biotech, say, or reviewing the case management flow at a county hospital. The lawyer explains how the process should work. She knows exactly who should receive the action item first. The doctor is taken aback. He holds the opposite view.  

As the facilitator, I take a deep breath and refer to the process map on the wall, where their process challenge lives. Which is to say, I keep them focused on their shared objective.  

Usually, the tension dissipates. By examining the problem together—the one on the wall, not the one between them—they can agree on what would work best for their organization. It’s the oldest play in the book, and it always seems to work. 

Don’t Worry, It’s Normal 

Resistance to change is natural at the start of any process project. Our clients have usually been in business for years, some for decades, and their employees have an established way of doing things. Or, they have new employees who have navigated similar processes differently, with positive results. Fresh ideas, whatever the source, can feel like criticism. Process projects, by their nature, demand change. Unfortunately, people often worry that the change won’t be for the better. 

Strangely, this can be true even when everyone agrees that change is necessary. 

Shared Objectives to the Rescue 

When Future State is hired to help an organization map and adopt new processes, we employ our POV of Connected Organizations and bring people from across functions into the conversation. And we always start with the objective in mind. Right to left thinking, so to speak. Because it’s much easier for everyone to agree on the end than the means, working out the activities that will lead to a shared objective becomes a problem-solving exercise. And people enjoy solving problems even more than they want to resist change. 

Cross-functional collaboration

In workshops, I keep my groups focused on wall charts and process maps that employ tactile, movable parts, such as editable process step cards and arrows as well as the bedrock brainstorm tool: Post-It ® Notes. The team can shift, add, or remove any of these throughout the conversation. Ideas flow. Experimentation is welcome. But we test all concepts against the shared objective. In my story about the lawyer and the doctor, it’s no accident that the process map is placed prominently on a wall, not a table. It might seem like a small thing, but standing on opposite sides of a table invites positional thinking (hence the metaphor). When people stand together facing a chart, they’re already on the same side. 

Getting people to focus on the problem and slip past any resistance to change requires a consistent and coordinated effort. In the moment, I tend to lean on the following: 

  • Bring the right people into the room. Make sure every functional team that touches a process is represented (which brings us back to the lawyer and doctor) 
  • Frame the work as a flexible effort. Explain that any solutions achieved during the workshop can be adjusted later. 
  • Align to a shared objective and keep it front and center. Test ideas, theories, and questions against the shared objective and see where the group goes next 
  • Set the stage. Place any problem-solving materials on a wall or shared space where everyone can view them side-by-side. The opposite is also true: Avoid physical positions that passively support conflict, such as over-the-table conversations 
  • Let everyone be the expert they are and give them a voice. Respect everyone in the room, seek out and listen to what they have to say, and incorporate it into the discussion 
Alignment on objectives

Again and again, the punchline to the “two characters walk into a process workshop” trope is the same. When the scientist and lawyer so quickly drop their differing viewpoints in the face of a shared objective, it still surprises me. I get ready for an intellectual sparring match and, suddenly, they are both pointing to the map, adding a new step, or moving around a series of process flow arrows. Together, they are creating a new solution to a process they both thought they’d mastered, their resistance transformed.