Change Management: Plan the Battle or Battle the Plan

As my husband was making the same lunch for the umpteenth time, I asked him why he didn’t mix it up a bit and include something new.  His response was: “when something works, don’t mess with it.”  

I happened to read Harvard Business Review’s teaser copy to their article “Decoding Resistance to Change” soon after the “why change?” conversation and was struck with the similarity.  To me, the statement that crystallized their research findings on change management was:  “Employees need to know not only what will change but why the new reality will be better.” 

How many times has each of us as leaders initiated a change and had it soundly rejected?  Has it been hatched in the corner boardroom, and then launched at the troops like a frontal assault?  My good friend Bill Parker, a consummate CEO and COO, taught me a good lesson from his Marine experience.  His motto was “Those who plan the battle won’t battle the plan.” 

While we can’t be all-inclusive while planning the business battle, we can certainly prepare our co-workers for the change to come.  Haven’t you ever heard something radical for the first time and automatically reacted negatively?  What if we were to preface the big announcement in stages to build consensus, up to the point of revealing the change?  This inclusion of people in the plan can start with a small group who filters out the information, town meetings or an interactive exchange with employees.  By building awareness, then building participation and finally engagement, staffers are given the opportunity to participate and take ownership of the change. 

Inevitably, there will be people who don’t want change.  When I try and substitute something into my husband’s brown bag, he switches it back to the same-old, same-old menu.  What I really liked about the HBR article was the point that resistance in itself is feedback.  Maybe the plan that we’re preparing isn’t right in some areas.  By listening to those voicing the resistance, we can change the initiative for the better, or at least understand the hesitation in adopting the change.  In either scenario, we’re better prepared to implement the change after letting co-workers (and other constituents) voice their objections. 

The best companies I’ve worked with share their challenges and invite participation.  From suggestion boxes to lunch with the CEO to internal crowdsourcing, if you can encourage people to participate in change, you’re likely to avoid a battle.

Decoding Resistance to Change”  by Jeffrey D. Ford and Laurie W. Ford, Harvard Business Review Article, published April 1, 2009.

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