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Overcoming Resistance to Change

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At Agile 2008, Dave Nicolette and Lasse Koskela, author of Test Driven: TDD and Acceptance TDD for Java Developers, ran a workshop on "Overcoming Resistance to Change". Any change whether an Agile implementation or re-arranging the office furniture is going to encounter some resistance. The real question is how we react when that happens.

When people resist changes we propose our first reactions are often emotional (anger and frustration): They're stupid, stubborn, etc. As Dave pointed out thinking like this will not help us achieve positive change.

Reasons for resistance were broken down into three basic types:

  • Cognitive: I don't understand what should change, the benefits or how to change.
  • Emotional: Can I do this? Will I like it? Do I feel threatened? ...
  • Behavioral:  I refuse to be told what to do.

Forms of Resistance:

  • Active or Passive
  • Overt or Covert
  • Individual or Group
  • Aggressive or Timid

We were invited to play Dale Emery's: Resistance as a Resource Game - answering the question "Why would 'an intelligent, competent, sincere person of good will' resist a proposed change?". According to Dale the purpose of the game "To create, learn, remember, and express ideas about how to respond to resistance". In our version of the game each table worked together to discuss a few examples of resistance. For each resistance we proposed possible a Reason and then one or more Responses for each reason.

When it came time for the role playing Lasse join this reporters group and played the role of a Team Member who refused to standup. As a group we had discussed a number of emotional reasons that this person might be refusing to stand. However when this reporter acted as Scrum Master he completely forgot the emotional side and made cognitive appeals - which had no affect on Lasse. In the end the team stepped in and asked Lasse to be part of the team and try standing for the next couple of sprints.

Who will resist depends on the source of the ideas and their conflicting priorities. Developers want to deliver quality, customers might want features and management to protect their budget. So each will view proposals for changes from the others through their own lens.

In handling resistance we were reminded on Kotter and Schlesinger's Six Approach Model:

  1. Facilitation. Support helps employees deal with fear and anxiety during a transition period.
  2. Education and Communication Up-front communication and education helps employees see the logic in the change effort.
  3. Participation and Involvement. When employees are involved in the change effort they are more likely to buy into change rather than resist it.
  4. Negotiation and Agreement. This can be done by allowing change resistors to veto elements of change that are threatening, or change resistors can be offered incentives to leave.
  5. Manipulation and Co-option. This often involves selecting leaders of the resisters to participate in the change effort. If these leaders are given only a symbolic role then there is high chance that this tactic will back fire.
  6. Explicit and Implicit Coercion - Where speed is essential and to be used only as last resort. Managers can explicitly or implicitly force employees into accepting change by making clear that resisting to change can lead to losing jobs, firing, transferring or not promoting employees.

As Dave and Lasse both said its best to focus on the first three and leave the others alone as they can make the situation worse.

Johanna Rothman adds that when you see resistance you should consider if its a reflection of your resistance.

So when we're faced with resistance to proposed change, step back and consider playing Dale's gam with a partner it may help illuminate the underlying problem and also responses that help improve the situation.

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