How to Handle Resistance to Change Management

Mark Barbir
Chief Technology Officer at ProductPlan


If you’re responsible for change management at your company, you have my respect. My sympathies, too. Because the resistance to change management can be difficult. People find it easy, even fun, to envision a great outcome. But the resistance to change management can negatively affect this excitement.

So, in this post, let’s talk through the common reasons businesses face resistance to change. When you understand and recognize these reasons, you position yourself to address and overcome them. Then I’ll offer a few suggestions for a successful change management process.

Why You’ll Encounter Resistance to Change (and You Will, Every Time)

1. People are often unaware that their daily actions conflict with their aspirations.

I once worked for a CEO who liked to describe our company as product-team driven. He truly believed he’d built an organization that empowered the product department to lead the strategy.

But in practice, that wasn’t the case. The CEO set all priorities and approved or rejected all product ideas. When the product team came up with viable concepts and produced evidence that these products could succeed in the market, the CEO often said no, ending the project.

If someone had proposed a plan to shift the company culture to be more product-team-led, the CEO would have rejected that idea as well. His resistance would have stemmed from the fact that he believed we already had a product-driven company.

One reason you might face resistance to change is that your team believes—or at least wants to imagine—that they have already adopted the new framework you’re suggesting. “Hey, we’re already a customer-centric business.”

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2. Inertia is a powerful driver of human behavior.

When you present a plan for digital transformation or some other company-wide change, many people’s first instinct will be to feel threatened or worried. Their second instinct will be to push back against your plan.

Everyone has routines and processes that make them feel comfortable. With your sweeping change proposal, you’ll be asking them to give up some or even most of these routines. Additionally, some people on your team could worry that they will have a diminished role under your new framework. Others might have the opposite concern: that they will have to take on more work and responsibility.

Often the resistance you will face in your change management efforts will have nothing to do with the merits of the approach or framework you’re proposing. It will simply be the result of your team’s fear of shifting to a new process in which they might not be as needed or successful.

3. People might not realize what they’re committing to when they sign on for the change.

Let’s say you persuade your company to make a change. You begin rolling out the new processes. For a time, everyone seems to be adjusting smoothly. But then something happens. A reality sets in that your team hadn’t physiologically prepared for.

Here’s what that might look like under a couple of real-world examples.

Transform Your Organization from Traditional Marketing to Product-Led Growth

Sure, your stakeholders might have found this idea exciting in principle. It sounded great: Let’s be like Slack and make a free version of our product so compelling that people can’t help but share it and market it for us. We can even cut down on our paid marketing campaigns.

But then the first month passes, and your paid signup rate is down. That was part of your product-led growth model, and everyone agreed in theory. But experiencing a month of lower-than-normal revenue could make your executives panic. Will they demand the company reactivate its costly marketing campaigns to generate immediate revenue?

Transform Your Product Development Process from Waterfall to Agile

Changing your company’s development approach from waterfall to agile might be a wise strategic decision. And at first, you might find a lot of enthusiasm across the company. In the abstract, saying “We’re an agile shop” will probably sound appealing to your stakeholders.

But let’s do another thought experiment. Imagine your company has made this transformation its official policy, and your cross-functional team is about to begin work on a new product, with natural resources and budget on the line.

Download the Product Development Roadmap Checklist ➜

Resistance to Change Is Part of Human Nature

As I hoped I’d communicated, resistance to change often stems from our hardwiring.

In some cases, you’ll have trouble earning buy-in for a transformation because your coworkers envision themselves as having already made the change. In other cases, they’ll push back because they feel more comfortable with a legacy approach or worry about their fate under new conditions. Sometimes, your team will agree to the change first but then abandon it when it leads to challenges.

Bottom line: Do not expect to pull off a company change with zero pushback. Dealing with resistance is part of the change management process.

But you can reduce this resistance and earn more trust and enthusiasm for your plan by following some best practices. I’ve outlined them below.

6 Steps to Successful Change Management

1. Present the potential benefits to your stakeholders.

Before you describe how much work the transformation will require, you should explain to your team why it will be worth the effort. Keep your description of the upside anchored to reality but let your enthusiasm for the new framework show. If you’re going to earn buy-in for the change, you’ll need your team to be enthusiastic about it.

2. Explain honestly the effort needed to make the change happen.

Everyone needs to know upfront what they’re getting into when they sign on to your proposed transformation. That will minimize the culture shock your company experiences as people run into the inevitable bumps along the way.

If you’re proposing a shift from waterfall to agile, what if anything is agile about your current practices? If your processes are entirely waterfall, you need to explain the significant adjustment this represents for everyone involved.

3. Let your team know what success will look like.

One common reason employees resist proposals for change is that the process seems endless. Your stakeholders could legitimately worry about you following them around forever, saying: “Can we make this process more agile?” “How can we make that routine more agile?”

A key to earning stakeholder buy-in for your plan is to give everyone a picture of what it will look like when they’ve completed the change. That will provide them with something tangible. It will also counter the fear they have in their minds that they’ll never get done once they start this process.

4. Evangelize the change throughout the process.

Every change implementation faces setbacks and frustrations. As the driver behind this change management effort, an essential part of your role will be to continually serve as the plan’s advocate and champion. You’re there to remind your coworkers that the struggles they’re experiencing during the change will pay off when the company becomes more vital, more competitive, more profitable, etc.

You might have this conversation dozens of times with different stakeholders. Heck, you might have to evangelize to the same stakeholders repeatedly. Some people will need more convincing, more pep talks to keep them on track. That’s okay. Bring the same level of enthusiasm and confidence to your evangelizing every time.

5. Establish celebratory milestones along the way.

You’ve shown your team the end state of your transformation. They have a picture of the finish line. Still, many of them will experience change fatigue at different points in the process.

One way to counter this is to create internal victories to celebrate throughout the process. Send out positive updates when the company achieves a milestone along the way—schedule parties for internal accomplishments throughout the transformation. Give out awards to stakeholders: Maybe honor an “Agile Hero of the Week” for your agile transformation.

6. Remain resilient.

Essential stakeholders may tire of the changes you plan to implement. It is also important to note that you may also get fatigued from changes.

As your coworkers push back against the change or show signs of frustration with it, you’re going to be tempted to throw up your hands and revert to the old process.

This is where you need to remain resilient, remind yourself about the strategic benefits of implementing this change and maybe even evangelize the plan for yourself.

Start Roadmapping Your Change Management Plan➜