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CHANGE MANAGEMENT: Is Residual Resistance Killing Your New Change Initiative?

We have often mentioned David Gleicher’s change formula – D X V X F > R – as an important sequencing of tasks when building a change initiative.  When so many leaders jump into the F – First Steps – without building the D (Dissatisfaction with Status Quo and Case for Change) or the V (Compelling Vision), the result is an increase in the amount of R (Resistance) to the change.  The Resistance increases because taking the First Steps awaken everyone to the change.  Without leaders having a readiness to discuss the current dissatisfaction or the vision on where the change is going to lead us, the resistors are clearer about the downside than leaders are about the upside.  A “loss” discussion will always win out over a “gains” discussion, especially if the “gains” are fuzzy.

Recently, while working with a large team composed of both managers and staff, we had a new “ah-ha” about the formula. This group – let’s call it the Change Team – was having difficulty moving forward despite clarity with the D and the V.  Everyone on the team recognized that the D – the Case for Change – was an imperative because an enormous investment was being made in capital projects.  Likewise, the new Vision was actually physically being built before their eyes.  Yet, when it came to examining how the organization needed to transform to meet the future, the group struggled.

As we discussed why something that made so much sense to do was so difficult for the group to endorse, stories began to emerge about previous change initiatives.  In the past there had been changes made by senior management without strong communication or engagement of the next tier of leadership.  People felt they had been bush-wacked and promised things that never materialized.  Fundamentally, they didn’t trust that this change would be any different, despite the fact that the process was different.  After all, this time they were being included, but it didn’t matter.  Suddenly, it was clear that “residual” resistance from previous poorly-managed change initiatives was blocking the ability of the group to engage in the formula!    We pictured it like this:









Now that we had a way to capture visually what was happening emotionally to the group, it became easier to see what we needed to do.  The Residual Resistance had formed a barrier that was preventing the group from engaging in creating the new Case for Change and Compelling Vision, to say nothing of launching First Steps.  Where the traditional “bell curve” of a change initiative has about 15% of people toxic to change, 60% as bystanders – sitting on the fence waiting to see how the change will go – and 25% supportive of change, the Residual Resistance had changed the bell curve dramatically.  We now had 50% resistors, 30% waiting to see, and only 20% as champions.









We needed to figure out a way to “give voice” to the Residual Resistance so we could understand it better.  Chris Argyis, a renowned organizational development expert, has called this Residual Resistance, the “Undiscussibles” that affect every organization.  He makes some key points in his premise:

1. Organizations have an inner dialogue made up of the things people say to each other in small confidential groups that are undiscussible in official forums of organizational business.

2. This inner dialogue is a powerful force that causes the failure to achieve rationally arrived at decisions. It is here where people’s real thoughts and feelings about what is discussed in official forums are revealed and communicated.

3. This inner dialogue is mainly carried through stories people tell each other to justify their interpretation of events and decisions.  Nothing the “rational mind” decides it wants will actually happen if the “inner dialogue” is resistant to it.

4. The only way out is to create discussion and understanding.

It now became clear that we needed to surface the Residual Resistance and figure out how to address the deeply-rooted issues of distrust.  It wouldn’t work simply to push the past into the past and force the group to move forward.  Yet, we didn’t have time to get stalled on going over every grievance of the past.  The resolution involved seeing the two needs as we might if we went to the emergency room of a hospital with a broken arm and an asthma attack.  Each would be triaged as important but different.   Each would be handled simultaneously and collaboratively.  So we set up two teams:  one to address the cultural and leadership issues of distrust in the organization and the second to start analyzing the new changes needed for the future.  It was recognized that the latter team – building changes for the future – would go forward slowly, communicating much more often and gaining greater support at each step.  The team could not assume that endorsement of the organization would be automatic.

This surprise turn of events absorbed considerable time in the Change Team meetings, probably more than senior leadership would have liked.  Yet, we now have surfaced important “undiscussibles” from the past, put them on the table for all to see, and can begin the building process to move forward.

My questions to you: 

1. Do you have Residual Resistance that exists from past events that is blocking the ability of your organization to move forward?

2. Are the “undiscussibles” being talked about in water-cooler stories at the same time leadership is thinking that all are in support of the change?  Who is fooling whom?

3. Can you see a way to acknowledge the importance of both, triage them simultaneously as different but equally important, and take baby steps to move forward?

We’d love to hear your experiences with the Residual Resistance and how you handled it.


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  • Deborah,

    A really interesting article and one that resonated with me as a freelance change management professional.

    I’ve forwarded the link to people I know will be interested to read what you have to say.

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