I've lived through, led, and been a part of more company transformations and change management efforts in the last 20 years than I would have ever imagined. Some were successful, and others were painful failures that had me looking to buy a therapy dog.
There is a lot of good insight out there about why some change efforts succeed, including tips on what to do to make your change effort successful. There's also the laundry list of reasons why more change efforts crash and burn than are successful.
I had studied this change management stuff pretty thoroughly in college and even took a course from Jerald Jellison, the famed University of Southern California Professor of Psychology known for his landmark work around the psychology of how humans deal with change and the change management "J-curve."
Then I joined the workforce and encountered real people stuck in the middle of confounding and often conflicting business realities that often created ambiguity around everything associated with whatever change was being implemented. The result was some strange, unpredictable, and even ridiculous situations that seemed to surface in every change effort.
It turned out that leading change was pretty messy business. At times, it even felt a little like corporate trench warfare.
From all of that time in the trenches, you pick up a strategy or two. Along the way, I picked up some practical approaches that surprisingly seemed to work almost every time out there. It was like the secret moves no one had.
In many ways, though, the single biggest strategy I found that worked isn't really a secret at all. And it isn't that hard to do except that most of us don't do it simply out of fear:
Find the people who are dead set against the change you are trying to lead, and go get them involved in it.
It sounds counter-intuitive. Why would you actually seek out the people who want you to fail or who are actively, or frequently passive aggressively, lobbying against you? Why would you put them on the core team who is leading the change? Isn't that kind of like sabotaging yourself?
In every change effort I lead, I actively find the loudest conscientious objectors to genuinely get them involved because they do two critical things that will make the change actually stick:
1. They will tell you all of the reasons (that you don't want to hear) about why people don't want to, or can't, make the change a reality.
That information is really important. Not only does it help you understand why people may resist so you can think about how to handle it, but it also forces you to confront potentially legitimate flaws in the change you are trying to make or blind spots in your thinking. Whether you like it or not, you will be forced to hear perspectives counter to your own about the change.
2. If you find a way to work with them towards a solution they support, they will become your biggest advocates in selling the change.
There's an old expression that says that "nobody is more zealous than a convert." If you can truly find a way to collaborate with the objectors and find a solution they can support, they will sell the change enthusiastically. A lot of the objectors are quite influential across the company.
The first time I tried it, I was afraid to engage. I feared the potential conflict. I feared hearing what I didn't want to hear. I feared having to do something about it or even changing my thinking about the change I was leading (somewhat ironic that the leader of the change initiative would fear having to change the change initiative).
It certainly would have been a lot easier to write the objectors off as a small minority of "haters", "resisters" or even "negatrons" (all labels I've heard to describe those who are against the change).
There's no doubt that it is hard work to regularly engage the band of resisters. In the beginning, I'm often wiped out after talking to them. It's hard to hear about why what you are doing is bad, won't work, irritates people, or causes them to do things differently in a way they don't like or are convinced won't work.
But something really cool starts to happen after a bit of time:
They start to trust you and genuinely respect you for not ignoring them and for including them.
Then you can start to get down to business. That's when you can start to really get to making the change happen and work.