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people-coffee-tea-meetingWhen drawing up the plan to carry out a major change initiative, how the people will respond and how readily they will give their commitment is key. Change managers often develop a change impact assessment (identifying who will be affected by the change and to what extent) but their analysis rarely take into account the ability of the people to change and what their attitude will be.

It can help to place teams and individuals into four broad groups (and our last blog introduced this approach). The groups we discussed are:

  • Can change and will change
  • Can’t change but will change
  • Can change but won’t change
  • Can’t change and won’t change.

Each category drives a different approach as described in our earlier blog.

The most interesting category is the ‘Can change but won’t change’ group.

On the face of it, these are a difficult group to deal with. They have the ability and resources to change but are not willing to get behind the programme. These are the people who

  • throw up objections
  • show no support for the approach
  • put up barriers and obstacles and
  • are keen to keep things as they are.

They are also the group who the finger will often be pointed at if the change effort fails. On the face of it, they have the ability to drain a lot of energy from the change programme.

However, for change managers, leaders or consultants tasked with driving the change, this group can be an excellent place to go for feedback that, used correctly, can actually be of great benefit.

Writing in the ‘Harvard Business Review, J.D Ford and L.W Ford argue that this group are key because ‘difficult people can give valuable advice; particularly if they have seen similar change efforts fail in the past.’ They can be key in making sure the project does not repeat yesterdays failures.

There are a number of strategies to deal with this group:

  1. Boost the level of communication – increase the communication levels to really understand the impact of the changes on the people in this group and to put in place mitigating actions. By doing this there is an excellent opportunity to gain agreement
  2. Describe the vision – people need to understand not only how their work is changing but also the whole picture and the benefits that the changes will bring. Be very clear about the benefits and when and where they will be realised
  3. Change the change – people who are outspoken are often those who care most about getting things right and who have concerns about the problems that poorly designed or implemented change will cause. Take their views on board and learn where past programmes have got into difficulty. This can lead to a win-win outcome
  4. Build participation – look for opportunities to get people in this group involved in the change effort. This might be through asking some of them to be ‘change champions’ or super users.

As Ford and Ford say, ‘employees listening to new proposals remember previous experiences. It’s not surprising they expect history to repeat itself – and resist going through it all again.’ Project teams really need to understand the lessons of the past, not only to avoid making the same mistakes again, but to take the people with them.

Understanding which category individuals or groups of staff fall into is an interesting starting point for the change management approach. It can work alongside the development of a more traditional change activities to give a fuller view of the people challenges faced and the ways of dealing with them.