Helping people make changes

George Dinwiddie posted a story of how he over came “resistance” to a change he was proposing.

I wrote up a description of the types of changes I was proposing and made my pitch to the team. As I talked about making these changes (and making them incrementally, as we added newly requested features), I could tell that they weren’t really enthused by the idea. I poured on the heat of persuasion, describing the benefits in the short term of the immediate features we were developing. The less progress I made, the more enthusiastic I became, scribbling UML diagrams on the whiteboard and building castles in the air as I pointed out the advantages in the long term of making some significant changes we knew were coming down the pike.

I got nowhere but exhausted. I stopped, wondering how I could get these procedural programmers to understand the benefits of object-orientation. I was trying to figure out what to say next when a senior member of the team said, “I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who doesn’t believe you when you say this is a good thing to do. We just don’t know how to get from where we are to what you describe.”

Oh.

I guess I should have asked more questions.

How did I get over this “resistance” to my suggestions? I can think of three distinct ways, demonstration, discussion, and retrospection. The demonstration is focused around what I did, as I provided examples of what I intended and described how I got from the current code to the new code.

This is a great example blasting the notion that people who aren’t following our ideas are “resisting.” What “resistance” really comes down to is that other people aren’t doing what we want or expect them to do when we ask them to change.

This may be because…

  • they don’t know how (as in George’s story)
  • they don’t feel they have time
  • they think their way is better
  • they don’t think the new way will work
  • they don’t like/repespect the person requesting the change
  • the new suggestion is counter intuitive given people existing mental models (or what they’ve been taught)
  • the new suggestion runs counter to existing reward structures or other organizational systems
  • the new suggestion doesn’t make sense to them
  • they have no experience that tells them the new way will work, or how it will work.

    Listening for what’s behind the “resistance” gives valuable clues on how to move forward.

    Unfortunately, I hear many people–even those who hope to influence others to change–label people who are “resisting” as clueless, stupid, or selfish. Some would-be change agents attack the motives of the people who aren’t following their ideas, accusing them of wanting to bring the company down.

    This may make the so-called change agent feel superior, as he/she belittles people who don’t get his/her wonderful ideas. But it doesn’t help him/her bring about change.

    Change artists listen and adjust their approach based on what they learn. They try to make it safe for people to try new ideas. And change artist never ascribe maliciousness to what can be explained by simple ignorance (which is lack of knowlege, not lack of ability or intellect).