The Change Gap: Why Planning for Resistance is Critical for Project Success

If we were to look into almost any successful change scenario, project success would be based on how well you anticipate and deliver change.

By their very nature, projects are often conceived, planned for, and executed in a bubble, with small cohorts of senior business people and project professionals committed to driving outcomes. Often driven by the twin themes of time and cost, the successful project teams aim to create momentum early on and seek to sustain it for the duration of the project.

It’s often this momentum focuses more so on the project outcomes, like the mechanics of the system or process changes being implemented, not the change readiness.

So there’s a balancing act between project momentum – best achieved by a small, focused group of people – and overall project acceptance, which can require wide-scale and often time-consuming business engagement.

All too often the pursuit of momentum overshadows the change complexity and challenge, which can be missed or understated.

So what can be done to ensure projects do not fall into the category of ‘eloquent implementation’ but poor business acceptance and take up’?

Anticipation is key

One of the core reasons that successful change is so difficult to achieve is that it is far less a linear pursuit when compared to the basic mechanics of project delivery (i.e. requirements, design, build, test, implement and so on), which is focused on changes to systems and processes.

These system and process changes can be, with the right amount of analysis, easily quantified and controlled in terms of effort, risk, and complexity.

But the reality is that change also involves people. And the ways that people react to change are not always linear. Change – and its impacts – is complex and difficult to predict. And what is difficult to predict is difficult to successfully plan for.

So if the change challenge is difficult to quantify, what should a project team do to remove the uncertainty? What steps can it take to anticipate what the change challenges will look like?

The starting point is to gather information on two fronts:

  • What is the size and impact of the change?
  • What is the nature and personalities of the cohort that will be required to accept the change?

The first data point of understanding the quantum of the change and the impacts is necessary to provide context, but not where the real challenge lies. The change certainly needs to be understood, but the potential critical blocker to success is the second point: What is the cohort the project team is dealing with and, importantly, what are their views on change?

Know thy enemy

If it is established that the project will be impacting the business, then it’s at this point that a project needs to execute some basic data gathering so it can anticipate what the likely uptake – or resistance –to the project changes is likely to be. This allows the project to at least have an idea of the change challenge it will face and plan accordingly.

We always recommend that the information gathering process is kept simple, particularly at the early stage when it’s possible you won’t have a 100% understanding of the change impacts. This can be done by a very straightforward tick-cross-neutral exercise within the key business areas that the impact will be felt, as below:

  • Tick – These people are always open to change, champion new systems and processes, and want to get onboard to help be a positive agent of change. They are also potential change advocates
  • Neutral – These people neither support or reject change, however will fall into line with whatever the prevailing feeling is to change (be it positive or negative)
  • Cross – These people are highly change resistant – no matter the change – and like the world as it is.

Anticipate and plan accordingly

This is a simple stakeholder analysis that a project team can start with to get to grips with the size of the change challenge in front of them. It provides enough information to understand the change risk profile for the project and begin to plan the change execution accordingly, even if only at a high level.

The approach is straightforward:

  • How does the project harness the ‘ticks’ to help them be positive change advocates and help to deliver change?
  • How does the project move the ‘neutrals’ into the positive range – or at least keep them from slipping into negative territory?
  • How does the project neutralise or sideline the ‘crosses’ so that they do not have an adverse impact on the change – or alternately, how can these people be moved up into the neutral category?

Accept that ‘change is challenging’ is a starting point

Change is the most difficult discipline of all of the project disciplines. It’s important to ensure that, at the start of a project, the delivery team doesn’t fall into the trap of thinking “It’s new technology; the users will love it!”. Because often the truth is that they may not.

Understand that no matter how much it will improve the overall operations of the organisation, the changes may not improve their working day and/or it may threaten what is, for them, a very comfortable and known way of working. Being able to anticipate who the key users are and how these users are likely to accept the change means you can plan for it.

It is better that this is done as soon as possible via basic stakeholder analysis than waiting to find out that the user base is highly resistant, no matter how good the system or process changes are.

Want to talk to us about managing change across your projects? Contact us here or call 02 9098 6300.

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