Overcoming Resistance to Change

Can people see that the alternative would be better?

Traditionally, “change projects” have often been driven by technology implementations or upgrades, with business processes and working practices being changed to fit in with the new system.

In today’s turbulent economy, however, change is just as likely to be driven by something else: a long-established competitor unexpectedly going bust, for example, or your bank calling in a loan, or a layer of middle management being made redundant.

Whatever the situation, when change looms on the horizon, chances are that you’ll hear things like:

“I can’t believe that restructuring the sales force is really going to increase sales.”

“Upgrading the system is such a disruption. I just don’t see why we need to go through all that work.”

“Our current system isn’t great, but what’s so wonderful about the new one? How will that be any better?”

“I know that Corascon going under should be good news for us, but I can’t work out what I should be doing about it.”

With comments like these flying around, how will you get everyone to agree with the changes you have in mind? After all, you can’t do this without them!

This is where Beckhard and Harris’s Change Equation can help. In this article, we’ll look at this equation, and see how you can use it to roll out successful change in the future.

Explaining the Change Equation

Richard Beckhard and Rubin Harris first published their change equation in 1977 in “Organizational Transitions: Managing Complex Change”, and it’s still useful today. It states that for change to happen successfully, the following statement must be true:

Dissatisfaction x Desirability x Practicality > Resistance to Change

This seems to be a simple statement, but it’s surprisingly powerful when used to structure a case for change. Let’s define each element, and look at why you need it:

  • Dissatisfaction: Your team has to feel dissatisfied with the current situation before a successful change can take place. Without dissatisfaction, no one will likely feel very motivated to change.Dissatisfaction could include competition pressures (“We’re losing market share”) or workplace pressures (“Our sales processing software is crashing at least once a week”). Dissatisfaction can be any factor that makes people uncomfortable with the current situation.
  • Desirability: The proposed solution must be attractive, and people need to understand what it is. If your team doesn’t have a clear vision of what things will be like after the change, and why things will be better, then they probably won’t be willing to work to deliver it. The clearer and more detailed you make this vision, the more likely it is that your team will want to agree with the change and move forward.
  • Practicality: Your team must be convinced that the change is realistic and executable.
  • Resistance to change: Resistance to change includes people’s beliefs in the limits of the change (“A new system won’t fit with our unusual business process”), stubbornness toward any change (“I don’t want to have to learn how to use a new system”), and general inertia or lack of interest at the beginning.

And because there’s a multiplicative relationship between Dissatisfaction, Desirability and Practicality, if one element is missing, that variable will have a value of zero – meaning that this whole side of the equation will equal zero.

How to Use the Tool

Beckhard and Harris’s change equation is most useful as a checklist in the planning and communication stages of a major change. When you’re planning your change process, consider each variable to make sure your team (a) feels dissatisfied with the current situation and (b) believes the future state is both desirable and practical.

Consider the sales processing system we touched on earlier, which is crashing regularly. Right now, the system might crash only once a week – this is inconvenient, but it’s not painful. So overall, your team may be reluctant to go through the all the work involved in an upgrade.

When you use the equation, you see that the number of crashes doesn’t cause the team members to be dissatisfied enough to make the change. It’s your job to give them a clear vision of what their lives would be like if they don’t make the upgrade.

For example, let them know that even though the system currently crashes only once a week, it will eventually start crashing every day – and then multiple times every day. When that happens, the team will get behind on their work, and they’ll have to stay late to get it finished. A picture like this will probably increase their dissatisfaction with the current system. (Of course, it’s always possible that they’re satisfied with the existing approach, that the change doesn’t deliver sufficient benefits, or that the plan isn’t practical – in this case you need to revisit the case for change!)

Also, make sure you share enough details about the technical aspects of the change to help people understand how things will be better. Suppose the new system, in addition to fixing the current problems, also has the capacity to handle 500 times more transactions simultaneously. If people don’t know this, they may not be convinced of the desirability of the upgrade!

And finally, be clear about what you, and your team, will need to do to make the change from the current state to the desirable new state. In particular, identify first steps that will help you increase people’s confidence in the practicality of the proposed change.

Key Points

Implementing change is no small task. But using Beckhard and Harris’s change equation during the planning process is a quick but effective way of ensuring that your team understands why change is necessary, why your proposed “to be” state will be better, and what they need to do about it now! When all of this is in place, you will greatly improve the likelihood that your change will be successful.

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