Change management as it is traditionally applied is outdated. We know, for example, that 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support.

Source: Changing change management, by Boris Ewenstein, Wesley Smith, and Ashvin Sologar, McKinsey & Company.

70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals? This is widely believed, but there’s no evidence to support it. See “70% of organisational change initiatives fail” — Fact or fiction? elsewhere on this website.

Now let’s dispel another myth: resistance to change.

In the organisational realm, the concept was originated by psychologist Kurt Lewin in the 1940s and subsequently misinterpreted.

The following text is the abstract of Challenging ‘Resistance to Change’, a peer reviewed academic paper written by Eric B. Dent (Fayetteville State University; University of Maryland University College — Graduate School of Management and Technology) and Susan Galloway Goldberg (The George Washington University), and published in Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, Vol. 35 No. 1, March 1999 25-41.

This article examines the origins of one of the most widely accepted mental models that drives organizational behavior: The idea that there is resistance to change and that managers must overcome it.

This mental model, held by employees at all levels, interferes with successful change implementation.

The authors trace the emergence of the term resistance to change and show how it became received truth.

Kurt Lewin introduced the term as a systems concept, as a force affecting managers and employees equally.

Because the terminology, but not the context, was carried forward, later uses increasingly cast the problem as a psychological concept, personalizing the issue as employees versus managers.

Acceptance of this model confuses an understanding of change dynamics. Letting go of the term — and the model it has come to embody — will make way for more useful models of change dynamics.

View source

The way I see it, people are not “resisting change”. They are expressing their displeasure that the change initiative or innovation endeavour is designed in such a way that it generates anti‑value for them.

In these circumstances, the anti-value that people experience arises from a loss — usually of status, benefits or personal capability.

If you create anti-value for people, you must expect them to be mad at you. But don’t make them wrong, and don’t call it resistance.

I dropped “resistance” and “denial” from my org vocabulary long ago. Labels put no one in the mood to change.

Source: Toward A Better-Informed Cynicism, Marvin Weisbord’s review of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office, by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan, in strategy+business.
Marvin Weisbord (pictured) is co-director of Future Search Network and a visiting scholar in the University of Pennsylvania’s Organizational Dynamics program. He is the author of the 25th anniversary edition of Productive Workplaces: Dignity, Meaning, and Community in the 21st Century (Jossey-Bass, 2012), s+b’s pick for best business book on organizational culture in 2012.
Marvin Weisbord. Photo credit: Great Thoughts Treasury
Read more about Marvin Weisbord

People don’t resist what they have had a hand in designing, they actively work to make it happen. Resistance is what happens when you have messed up the design process; it is an outcome of a badly designed change programme. Resistance is the consequence of failure, not the cause of it.

Source: The Fractal Organization: Creating sustainable organizations with the Viable System Model, by Patrick Hoverstadt.

“Such epistemological error (i.e., the refusal to accept what is) is related in several ways to a system’s appearing to resist change. First, if we expect a patient¹ to act a certain way and cannot accept that she or he acts otherwise, then we have made an epistemological error and created ‘resistance.’ That error is far more common than therapists’ would like to admit. The so-called ‘resistant patient’ is usually defined by his or her obnoxious unwillingness to cooperate with treatment’. That patient, however, is not resistant; the patient is simply being who she or he is. Erickson long ago pointed out that the epithet, ‘resistant patient,’ amounts to nothing more than the therapist’s declaration that he or she will allow his or her patients to have some symptoms, but not others (i.e., obnoxious uncooperativeness). Note also that the patient is not obnoxious; the patient is just being who he or she is. What we find obnoxious is the fact that the patient is not as we want him or her to be.”

Source: Beyond Homeostasis: Toward a Concept of Coherence (pdf), by Paul F. Dell, Ph.D., formerly a Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Eastern Virginia Medical School and now in private practice.
Note 1: This excerpt may make more sense if you substitute employee for patient, change agent for therapist and intervention for treatment.
If people seem to be “resisting” a change intervention, it’s an indication that you need to redesign it in such a way that it becomes irresistible. The best way I know of accomplishing this is by means of a now-to-new intervention: a judiciously designed and skilfully orchestrated set of actions that bring forth a desired state of affairs, such that widespread value is generated.

When the proposed project suits the purposes and meets the value requirements of relevant beneficiary group members, they will support the project, or — at the very least — will not hinder its progress.

Specify the value to be generated by the now-to-new project

In order to become adept now-to-new practitioners, not only must we stop talking about resistance to change — we have to stop seeing it.