The Resistance to Change

By Tom Chenault

Several times I have had people ask me: “What is the largest obstacle to getting things done in organizations?”  My answer is always the same: It is people’s resistance to changing their ways to create more efficiency, with less waste, to better the organization in the long-run.

The definition of resistance to change is the action taken by individuals and groups when they perceive that a change that is occurring as a threat to them.  The key words here are “perceive” and “threat.”  The threat need not be real or large for resistance to occur.  This of course, is the root of corporate politics.

To begin with, change does not mean more of the same with a new name.  This is the rule of politicians, which is the last thing we need more of.  Real change needs to be creative and productive.  People like Thomas Edison, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and more recently, Steve Jobs, are examples of real change.  Creative change can enable a small, underdog organization to compete with the much larger one.  Organizations are full of people who can enact small change if they are allowed, and most often, they are not.

Change does not mean lay-offs, or necessarily new automation, or changes in policy.  Change can mean keeping manufacturing jobs at home, rather than dealing with a totally different culture in Asia.  If done correctly, change means creative and productive change.  Change means the creation of value for the paying customer.  Any other use of resources outside of this goal is considered wasteful.

Most organizations have a lot of waste, especially large corporations, hospitals, school systems and government agencies.  As we all know, federal agencies often operate inefficiently and drag down our economy in a large way

One of my favorite stories of change and persistence is Andrew Carnegie, who perfected the mass production of steel.  Before Carnegie, steel was considered a luxury item for jewelry and table settings.

After the steel process was established, there was resistance to change and the new technology.  To prove steel was a viable building product, Carnegie had to find a good structure with visibility, so, with the help of others, built the first bridge across the Mississippi River.  In spite of this effort, many still believed that steel was not a strong building material and deemed the new bridge unsafe.  To prove his point, Carnegie and the construction company rented an elephant from the local circus.  The elephant lumbered across the bridge with public fanfare and a parade, along with a myth that elephants will never venture anywhere on unsteady structures.  Persistence paid off.  Steel, along with elevators, changed the construction industry overnight.

During the mid-1980’s, a large Dallas bank was having trouble getting management to address new IT applications in their trust department.  They desperately needed new reports to reflect 1986 tax law changes.  The internal IT department was too busy with other priorities to help, so the trust department decided to either go outside or do it themselves.  Several vendors recommended a new technology: the local area network (LAN).  A large file server with a centralized database would be shared by numerous PC’s.  The trust department budget was not prepared for any technological self-sufficiency, or so everyone thought.  Everyone except some very creative (and brave) mavericks thought the issue was dead.  Network boards were purchased one-by-one with the department $500 budget minimum.  Some network equipment was listed as furniture.

Within a year, the department had a network with a database and many glowing reports bringing trust management to a new level.  Management, along with in-house IT, had no choice but to recognize the new LAN technology as something they had to support.  The trust department (the customers) won through persistence and everyone was happy with the result.

In 1879, even Thomas Edison had difficulty getting the light bulb(of all things) accepted. He was faced with the usual resistance to change. Finally, he convinced J.P. Morgan to light up his personal residence in New York City. The rest is history.

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