Transformation Resistance

“People care more about themselves when they are contributing.”

W. Edwards Deming.

“Scrum exposes every inadequacy or dysfunction within an organization’s product and system development practices. The intention of scrum is to make them transparent so the organization can fix them. Unfortunately, many organizations change scrum to accommodate the inadequacies or dysfunctions instead of solving them”.

Ken Schwaber.

In any transformation initiative we are going to see varying levels of support across an organization. At one end we will have the change evangelists who will enthusiastically support the initiative and work hard to promote it and ensure its success. At the other end of the spectrum we will have detractors, who may see the change as a threat to their positions, engage in various forms of passive-aggressive behavior, or even go as far as to mount an insurgency to sabotage the effort. Before we rush off to condemn them however, we need to recognize that these people may in fact be some of the most valuable and respected members of the organization. This is natural, and should be expected and planned for. The majority of people will be somewhere in the middle and will generally support the effort, or even while professing some ambivalence, will at least not stand in its way. This will hold true so long as the organization’s leadership has done a reasonable job in communicating and explaining the overall vision, goals and business context for the change.

Conventional wisdom recommends that leaders should work initially with those who most support the initiative, and should work aggressively to secure some early wins which will act as a catalyst of encouragement for the wider organization. Perhaps set up a pilot with a team of agile zealots who will demonstrate spectacular results!

To consolidate progress, leaders must continue to articulate the importance of the initiative at every opportunity, publicly celebrate progress, and remind everyone of their responsibilities in supporting the changes.

Over time, as the detractors see the success and growing momentum of the transformation, they are most likely to buy in. Occasionally there may remain a few hold-outs who steadfastly refuse to get on board, and in fact may continue to campaign against the changes. These people may have been valuable contributors to the organization’s past successes and therefore should be treated with the utmost respect. Leaders should meet with them and listen to their concerns, some of which may be very legitimate. Treat their opposition more as a reflection of their integrity and concern about the well-being of the organization, than any other motive. They may have very serious concerns about the changes, including things like:

  • A concern about abandoning something of value
  • A misunderstanding about the change and its implications
  • A belief that the change makes no sense for the organization

Listening and conducting an objective exploration of differences, and agreeing to work on major concerns may be sufficient to establish the required trust to convert these few hold-outs into supporters. Leaders who deal with resistance in this way, and not within a power struggle, or win-lose type of mindset, will not only avoid losing valuable people, but can build deeper levels of trust throughout the organization.

The job of an agile coach is not to make sure that changes take place, but to help the client organization become aware of the forces acting for and against those changes. The coach’s job is not to destroy or suppress any resistance, but to see that it is handled responsibly by the client.

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