Resistance to Change Management

Screenshot of Cora Assistant PPM Software
Gregg is a best-selling author, inspiring speaker and award-winning expert in the field of leadership, resilience, and change.

Subscribe to Project Management Paradise via one of the links above or on the right and you’ll automatically receive new episodes directly to your device.

Transcript: Episode 97: “Resistance to Change Management” with Gregg Brown

Could you tell us a little about your own personal transition from earning your first award on the Canadian Starbucks project to leading potentially difficult change initiatives in a variety of organizations?

When I first started in my career, as many people, I was searching to figure out what I wanted to do and I was very lucky to land at Starbucks as they were opening the first wave of stores here in Canada. What really got me was the ability of the company at the time and this is back in 1991, so nearly 30 years ago, and it really fired me up because it was really about changing a culture. It wasn’t about selling coffee.

And as I got interested in change, I progressed from there and began to work in healthcare and really focused on that culture change that happens, not only with individuals but also at the organizational level. As I progressed in my career I began managing more and more projects and I eventually got my project management designation.

As I kept growing in my career, I began to realize that you know projects really by definition are change initiatives. It’s usually something you need, something different, as we know not every change initiative is a project but every project by definition is a change initiative.

It really got me thinking that it’s not just about the project management plan that we put in place, it’s really about how do we get the people engaged and involved, not only in the initiating, planning and executing of the project but also wrap it up and turn it into a program that wants to sustain the change. That’s what really made me realize that we need to focus on the people part of projects.

How do you get into the collective heads across the spectrum of stakeholders, so you’ve got your senior management team right to everyone across your organization?

A project I was on about 14 years ago, which was a large province-wide initiative, here in Canada, the country is divided up into provinces. It was a large province health care initiative and we had a thousand stakeholders. And stakeholders ranged from individuals right up to organizations.

People tend to think that when we have stakeholders that it means we have to communicate with them every day and tell them everything that’s going on. That’s not the case. With a range of stakeholders like that, some of them want to be talked to once, some of them need to be talked to multiple times, some of them want to be talked to in different ways and in different formats.

What I did, which works for me and which I see many other people do that works for them, and what I learned from other people, of course, is really getting into the mind and to the head of that stakeholder. From their point of view, asking the question “What do I need to know to engage in this change”, whatever engage means, to buy, to use, to contribute, and that means you might need to go and talk to some people.

As we know from the statistics, project managers will often spend 70% to 80% of their time communicating or I should say they should be communicating. It doesn’t mean over-communicating, it means getting into the head of your stakeholder, what do they need to know, when do they need to know, and how do they need that information, it might be a journal article, it might be a podcast to reach a stakeholder.

How do you manage the “What’s in it for me?” question from your stakeholders?

We’ve all been taught and I include myself in this, you know, the whole with them, what’s in it for me, the WII FM radio station, make sure we ask that and if you tell people what’s in it for them, they will get on board the change.

Yet my experience is that sometimes there’s nothing in it for you, sometimes it means more work, sometimes it means learning a new skill, which you might not see a benefit to, and sometimes you might think of process cumbersome. So, I think the better question to ask is “What’s the impact on me?” So, what’s the impact on the stakeholder?

There might be benefits, yet you also have to address any other concerns and potentially negative impacts because if you just do the “What’s in it for me” and make up a bunch of stuff. The reality is everybody in the day-to-day job is overwhelmed with information, usually overwhelmed with meetings, usually dealing with tons of work, people often doing projects off the side of the desk. So, we really need to talk about the impact which includes the positive and the potentially negative challenging aspects of the project.

How would a culture of false positivity ruin your business?

The thing is that there’s so much information about you know positive thinking and be positive and just think positive and everything will get better and there is some truth to that, I’m not saying don’t be positive.

Yet there tends to be this approach or conversation that people often ask me about “How do I deal with the people that are negative or how do I deal with the resistors?” and some people just jerks and they are going to be negative about everything. When we are talking about false positivity, we are really looking at, not putting a positive spin on a bad situation, we are talking about being real with people.

Sometimes it is about saying: “I don’t know how is this going to turn out”. When the false positivity is around, we insist the people put their concerns away, we tell people to look on the bright side, just smile and to just be positive and it will all work out. Well, that’s a nice approach to have, but we need to do the work around that.

When I used to coach entrepreneurs years ago, so many books say to just do a plan, think positive, meditate, get grounded, and I believe that and I’m not saying don’t do that. That sort of wisdom is really important in your life but you have to take action and action means going into the negative dealing with people’s concerns, having the conversation, even if you can’t solve the problem, you still need to be able to allow people to articulate that.

That articulation and communication could be a major pitfall for the management team when they use corporate language more than plain talk when introducing a change to people. Tell us about some of the pitfalls there?

I worked with an organization a while ago that was doing a big restructuring. About 50% of people were gonna lose their roles over 5 years and the management team had sent out of this communication about, you know, we are just going to tell people to rationale and benefits why this is so good and they will all get on board.

And we all know that’s a bunch of horse crap. This executive team I have worked with just send out a communication saying “These are the benefits, this is why we are doing this and, just so you know, 50% of you will be out of the job in 5 years” and left it at that.

The executives were in the cloud and they just didn’t know what was really going on and I was working with them when they realized they need to change their messaging, So, that they were saying “Yes, this is happening and it’s going to be hard and it’s going to be difficult but we are going to help you the best that we can” and once they change the messaging it again opened up a dialogue with people, so people didn’t think the executives were up in the cloud.

Sometimes, we as project managers understand the benefits of the new technology, but people, as end-users, often think “I don’t have time for this, why do I have to do this?” and you need to be able to have a conversation.

Why is that kind of solution-focused thinking more important perhaps, sometimes not always but sometimes, than problem-solving mindset?

I think we are all good problem solvers and we wouldn’t be in our jobs if we weren’t. And I remember someone told me many years ago “You’re a really good problem solver and because you’re a good problem solver, people are going to give you more problems to solve”. Yet, the challenge is, we have a difficult time, I say: “We” just generally because we’re so task-focused and busy and that’s at all levels of the organization.”

We have a challenge with taking the time to do a more solution-focused approach which is really getting at the root of what the problem is. Let me give you an example of that if your boat is leaking you want to plug the hole in the boat. So, that to me is problem-based thinking, so just like on a project, if your project is going off the rails and you know you’re over budget, I expect you to bring it back in line.

That’s problem-based thinking – I need you to do that. Solution-focused thinking takes a higher-level approach. So, it’s looking at, once you’ve got that hole in the boat fixed or get your project back in line, you get the higher-level questions how do I prevent this from happening again, if it does happen again what we need to do the put in place, and if we solve this problem and to me, this is the core question that anybody wants to ask it to be sure at the solution-focused level. This is the most important question and you don’t even need to have the answer to ask this question.

The question is “If we solve this problem, will we be having the same conversation a year from now?” and the answer should be no. So, “If we put this technology in place, will we be having the same conversation a year from now?” and if the answer is yes, then you plug the hole in the boat, which you probably need to do, but you haven’t fixed you know the higher-level piece of that. You can throw more money on resources but is it really solving the problem at a high enough solution-focused level?

Let’s say if the bank is behind in their technology, compared to their competitors and says “Everybody has Mobile Banking, we better do it” but a year from now they’re going to be looking around at competitors who will have this new technology so they will say: “We better do that now”. So, you can see it’s not solving the root because the real question is: “How we stay ahead of the curve and stay ahead of our competitors and know what our customers want even before they ask?”

Can you tell me your top three nuggets or one of the three most important things to know about change leadership, regarding project management, in particular?

One of the big, big pieces of it is, with change leadership is making sure you’re using data and digital technology to your advantage. The advantage of big data, that you know many organizations are involved in both large and small amount, is we are able to start to tailor change initiatives to the end-user at a much faster pace and to me, that is really where the future of changes is going.

Being very aware that there was a lot of that out there, there is a lot of technology and it’s going to drive how we implement change initiatives and how we lead change. The other pieces are not to overlook your instincts. All of us who lead changes and projects, we have instincts of what we think is right and what we think is wrong and how we should do something or not.

I try to validate that with data and turn your qualitative data into quantitative data and there are ways to do that when you’re tracking or hearing what people are saying about something. You can start tracking the number of times people say: “I don’t understand the purpose of this” so that if you’ve talked to 100 people and 50 people said they didn’t understand it you now can quantify that by saying “50% of people I have talked to do not understand the purpose of this project”.

I think the most important piece, and again it’s something we tend not to talk about, is being prepared to be unprepared. We, sometimes, will not know what the future holds. If you’re on a short-term project or change, let’s say: three months initiative, you can pretty much see what the three months are going to look like.

But if you are on a two or three-year project or transformation, you might see the first six months but you have no idea what it’s going to look like at the end of three years. You need to have a plan, I’m not saying don’t have a plan, but you do need to have a plan. However, you have to be aware and be comfortable with the fact that it is going to change and that you need to use good change control processes to engage with your stakeholders, so that everybody is aware, that needs to be aware of what those changes are, so you don’t get to the end of the road and say that’s not what I asked for, you need to prepare people that we are not going to know all the answers.

The more prepared that you are to be unprepared, the better you’ll be able to handle the changes that happen. If you’re too rigid and not flexible of how you think something should go, you will have a much more difficult time dealing with the changes. And that’s my challenge, too. I still get stuck in the certain way that I think is right and I have to be prepared that I will not know how it is going to look like.

When you get stuck like that, how do you get people unstuck, how do you address people like that?

When people are stuck, one of the things I like to do is look at how they’ve gotten unstuck from a change in the past and sometimes it doesn’t even need to be a related issue. For example, all of us have overcome challenges in our job or whatever that may be, so if some folks I was working with were stuck in a change, I might do this one on one or in the group, depending on whatever process I was using to communicate.

So: “How did you handle this last time, what did you actually do, what skills did you use, what strategies, what tactics?” and apply those transferable skills that you can apply to other areas. Let me give you an example, many years ago, I was teaching project management to nurses, and you might go “I don’t what are the synergies between nursing and project management” but surprisingly enough, nursing processes are very similar to the project management processes.

Assessment, planning, intervention, evaluation – what does that sound like? It sounds like a project management process and you can do it with a patient and you can do it when running a project. And that’s one way I get people unstuck – to look at how have you handled things in the past because of the transferable skills. If you plan the birthday party, you can run a project, because the birthday party is the project. You might need to learn some different language and terminology but the planning and organizational skills are there and they are transferable.

Find out more about Gregg Brown

Visit Gregg’s Website:

Follow Gregg on Social Media: Twitter , Instagram ,

Connect with him on LinkedIn

My Real World Advice column

Related Insights

Want to See Cora in Action?

Cora PPM Software Laptop and Mobile Image