On Resistance to Change in the Organizational context….

It’s been about three years since the Nokia CEO Stephen Elop wrote his now famous ‘Burning Platform’ note to rally the troops at Nokia. The Company was facing  stiff competition from the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google, etc in the smartphone market.
The burning platform was a reference to an oil rig fire in the North Atlantic where a survivor awoke to find himself surrounded by smoke and flames. He barely made it to the edge of the platform and could see the frigid waters below…a good 30 meters drop. He had microseconds to decide – it was the certainty of burning to death or the off chance of surviving the drop and the frigid waters…he jumped, and survived!
The thing about being faced with change is that we don’t always have the luxury of time…sometimes all we have is a burning platform…so it’s either change…or perish!


Discontinuous change (such as the disruptive changes we have witnessed with Kodak’s failure to jump on the digital wave, the VHS/DVD rental industry failure to see the streaming phenomenon coming, traditional Taxi services failing to see the free-for-all Uber model coming, etc) are sometimes as impatient and unforgiving as they are efficient – and quite brutal).
You are literally forced to either get on the train or be left behind.
Trying to deal with resistance to change with kid gloves may have been a great ‘flavour of the month’ sort of management program to dabble in…but today, most Organizations are low on patience and quick to get the engines started and roar off…leaving those who are still dealing with their resistance to change heartache…in the dust.


I read an article recently that suggested that resistance to change was a myth and that humans are hardwired to in fact thrive on change? I haven’t heard a more ludicrous proposition in a while. If change comes naturally to people why don’t we alternate right/left hands when we shake hands. Why don’t we swop feet to hit the gas or the brake pedals from time to time? Why don’t we walk backwards rather than walk forward all the time. Why don’t we get in and out of bed from totally different directions every night. This nonsensical diatribe can go on and on – but all it really does is establish that humans are hard-wired to practice perfection within a specific comfort zone and than resist (with their very life) the need to change to any other comfort zone (even if it is supposed to be better). I am not saying this predilection for a constant is right…but that’s just how we are.


For a contextual understanding of the subject of Resistance to Change, myth or otherwise, one needs to understand that change is typically:
1. Continuous change (imagine the routine path of a child growing in stages to a mature adult). This sort of change is easy to deal with because we have all gone through it and understand the nuances and ups and down of life, and have the skills to deal with them.
2. Discontinuous change: Imagine that the parents decide to divorce and the child is put into foster care because neither parent cares to take on the responsibility.
This sort of ‘Discontinuous’ change is what we struggle to deal with because we do not yet have the skills to cope with the change.
Hence our confusion and resistance when faced with Change in general, and Discontinuous Change in particular.


Any change initiative needs to have a clear vision of what the future environment will look like – if not, the change or transformation from the ‘as is’ to the ‘desired’ state is doomed.
In my experience with two global Organizations that implemented very significant change strategies, way back in the 90’s, the only way to deal with resistance to change is to understand the Kübler-Ross model of emotional stages experienced by survivors faced with imminent death:  the five stages are denial, anger, negotiation, depression and acceptance.
I learned that when faced with dramatic, significant change, Organizations, Teams and employees at every level of the organization have to learn how to deal with the 5 stages.
Communication, a clear Vision of the ‘Desired’ state and a Change Program that recognizes that the rate of change cannot be faster than the human resources or automation can keep up with – is fundamental to the success of the initiative.


Resistance to Change is a real, unimagined, psychological barrier that needs to be addressed by a combination of communication, Process Simplification and Clarity of Vision – i.e what are we changing to.
That is the basic formula applied to hundreds of Organizations that have successfully implemented a change program. If the change requires that some employees will lose their jobs, it only lends a more sensitive aspect to the program – but that does not make it somehow ‘evil’ or inconsiderate.
It behooves leadership to ensure that the change is not only truly the best thing for the organization, but that it is perceived as such by all stakeholders.
Consider the Photography leaders like Kodak who refused to change to the Digital wave – or Blockbuster, who missed the live streaming (Netflix) phenom.
They all missed the bus…and were left behind as a result


The Change Juggernaut marches on. Today our workplace is plagued with disappearing  low skilled jobs – thanks to the I/T revolution that is happening with Big Data and Analytics, Cognitive computing, Deep Learning systems, The Cloud and next generation Robotics (consider the dramatic breakthrus made by companies like Boston Dynamics). All facets of business and industry are being impacted, and it is only a matter of time when the last few bastions of human endeavor like education and medicine will also be threatened with job loss (as will white collar Mgt).  So we are right to want to resist these great upheavals, but it is inevitable. There are no simple answers…such as re-tool your skill set, or get a better education…this Change is Disruptive. Try as we may, there is no resisting this terrifying yet promising technology wave poised to inundate us all!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s