“It’s a great project,” says the project manager, his eyes sparkle, “you will love it!” Then he looks sideways, checking to see that no one is watching, lowers his voice, and adds: “I hope we don’t get resistance.”

What could I say at this point? I keep calm, my facial expression remains neutral. Should I break the news about resistance being the typical reaction to any change, even a good one? Shall I explain why imperfect humans resist rational changes?

He looks worried. I guess he has always believed that resistance is not good, and that it occurs only in poorly-managed projects. He follows a robust, tried-and-tested project methodology; tried-and-tested for decades, but these projects still seem to fail due to neglecting the people side of change. As long as project managers live under the impression that resistance is unfortunate or exists due to poor management, projects will continue to fail.

Some people will love it

“Let’s think about it for a moment,” I say. “In order for your project to succeed, we need 1500 people to leave their desks, go out into the world, and start searching for clients. And, by the way, they also need to start using a new system to help them manage their sales pipeline and collaborate with their colleagues.”

“You got it right,” he confirms while I pause for air, “The new system is amazing, you will see.”

“And I’m sure that some people will love it. But let’s think for a second about the skeptical people. What will the most skeptical people worry about?

The project manager is silent for some time. We are sitting at the cafeteria, his eyes scan the trees beyond the large window in front of him. “I guess…” he hesitates, “I guess some people are happy to stay behind their desks.”

“What would they worry about?” I repeat the question, relax in my seat, and give him time to think.

“They might worry about the workload. Or that they no longer have time to do what they are used to do now.”

“OK. Anything else? What do skeptical people sometimes say about new IT systems?”

The recipes are limited by our collective imagination

Ten minutes later, we have managed to compile a list of concerns – how successful will they be in finding clients? What if they fail? What if they never wanted to search for clients? What pipeline information will be shared? How would sharing empty pipelines affect people’s reputation and motivation? How much effort will the training for the new system require?

The project manager’s eyes no longer sparkle, and the colour starts to drain from his face. “Do not despair,” I say with a gentle smile, “Resistance is inevitable. But it is also manageable. We’ve already made the first step now.”

He looks puzzled.

“We anticipate it. I’m sure the project team can come up with a few more concerns. Once we know what people might worry about, we can start thinking about how to address the concerns in advance.”

“Address? How?”

The reality is that every project is unique, and each organisation has particular characteristics and a distinctive culture. And whilst this can be proactively addressed, the ‘recipes’ for addressing resistance are limited only by the project team’s collective imagination. And my point? We can’t start addressing resistance properly, as long as we hope not to get any. Instead, let’s ask: What will the skeptical people worry about?

What does leading research into change management tell us about managing resistance.

According to the participants in the Prosci Best Practices in Change Management Study*, there are five primary reasons for resistance from frontline employees:

  1. Lack of awareness
  2. Resistance specific to the particular type of change being introduced
  3. Resistance due to change saturation
  4. Fear
  5. Lack of support from management or leadership

This research study also indicates that there are three proactive steps which practitioners can take to avoid, or prevent resistance from employees:

  1. Communicate (honesty and transparency is important here)
  2. Engage employees in the development of solutions and strategies
  3. Apply a (structured) approach or methodology to manage the people side of change