Overcoming Resistance To Organizational Change

On Sept. 3, 1967, the streets of Sweden were in chaos.

It was H Day, or “Dagen H,” the day when the entire nation of Sweden switched from driving on the left-hand side of the road to driving on the right.

Implementing a change that monumental obviously couldn’t happen incrementally with a handful of street signs changed here, a few roundabouts converted there. Instead, the country of Sweden needed a radical approach to retool their driving system from the ground up.

When it comes to change management in an organization, the first question leaders need to ask is what change approach they’ll use: kaizen or kaikaku (incremental or radical). Both terms come from lean manufacturing but apply to any organization.

  • Kaizen (continuous improvement) focuses on incremental changes where a system slowly evolves into an ever-better version of itself.
  • Kaikaku (radical change) focuses on introducing a brand-new approach or complete overhaul of an existing system.

Kaizen is the change management model that everyone knows and gravitates toward, and it’s usually the best way to create change, since each improvement is minimally disruptive, yet the cumulative effect of change can be revolutionary. Sometimes, however, what you need is a radical kaikaku approach like Sweden took. But such sweeping changes come easier when you’ve properly paved the way.

In addition to the size of the change, we also need to be aware of the level of agency people have in the change. There’s a myth in the change management world that people resist change, but that myth is misguided. People can embrace changing; but they resist being changed.

Imagine that you are about to move to your dream home after years of planning and saving. You know how much work moving will be, but I’d bet you’re excited about the change because you initiated it, you chose your dream home, and you feel prepared.

You might feel more resistant to a surprise move, even if it’s positive overall. For example, you may suddenly need to move for your or your spouse’s job. Even though you may be hesitant at first, you might find your excitement growing as you get on board.

If you’re looking for a new place to live because you’ve been evicted, though, you’re very likely to resist the change entirely.

The outcome of all three examples is the same: You’re moving house. But in each situation, you have a different level of agency, and that makes a huge difference.

When it comes to change in the workplace, the level of agency people feel directly affects whether or not they embrace the change. If you handle the change correctly, most people will fall into the middle camp and buy in more as time goes on. If you attempt radical change right away, though, they may feel like they’re being evicted and will react accordingly.

That’s why rather than choosing between kaizen and kaikaku, the model I favor blends them both. When you start with small kaizen changes it allows you to build context, create agency, and get buy-in. That way, when it’s time for radical kaikaku changes, people aren’t resistant. In fact, they become excited to see the change come about.

Continuous feedback is critical to this model. Before you make a small change, prepare people for it by explaining why it’s happening and asking for their input. Afterward, listen to their feedback and refine the new change, or back out and try a different approach. Give people agency by letting them choose specific changes and decide on a timeline.

Essentially, approach every change with the express goal of making people’s lives better and a commitment to collaboration, communication, and humility.

If you take this approach, you’ll start to find that people are becoming antsy with the small changes. Whereas they may have been entirely resistant to change in the beginning — just as you might be if asked to move for a job — now they’ve bought into the dream and are excited about the prospect.

Whereas kaikaku would have felt like eviction a few months ago, when you’ve made the effort to give your team agency, it can eventually feel like an exciting new adventure.

Bob Gower
Co-Founder of The Alignment Company

PS: I’ve held a variety of leadership positions and advisory roles over the years including design director of a major newspaper and consultant to leaders of organizations (multinationals, local nonprofits and everything in between). 

These days I coach and advise leadership teams to get everyone aligned and pulling in the same direction. 

I also work as a dedicated in-house facilitator and fixer for organizations going through deep transformation.  

People usually find me when they have high stakes projects that need to go well. It may be that their team feels out of sync, decision making is (needlessly) difficult, or that there’s confusion about who owns what and why. 

My work helps improve culture and operations — aligning teams on all levels so they can be their best. 

If you think a conversation might be helpful, you should reach out.

Ready to Get Aligned?

A more efficient team is within reach. Find out what’s holding yours back and how to pave a path forward. Request a call today!