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24 April 2012

Defending change

By Andrew Clifford

Resistance to change often comes from those most loyal to the organisation.

I worked in the IT department of a large end-user organisation for fifteen years. For much of the time my role involved advising my colleagues about the technologies and systems that we had, and on the approach to and impact of change.

As part of this role, I had to critique new technology, new packages, development projects and management initiatives, and consider if and how these would work alongside our existing IT. A large part of my role was to represent what we already had to those wanting to change it.

This was a valuable role, but in the end it was untenable. Although my job was to understand and advise on how best to change, inevitably my role became misinterpreted as resisting change. Eventually, I found myself on the wrong side of organisational politics and had to go.

Over the past few years I have been working more as a consultant. I help organisations collect the information they need to support change, and help organisations develop new ways of working. As I work with other organisations, I see mirrors of my old self cropping up time and time again.

Whatever change we are involved in, we always come across resistance from a minority of people. Although it is tempting to dismiss them as selfish "blockers" who are resistant to change, I find myself sympathetic to them.

Often the people resist because for years they have been guardians of value. If my experience is typical, they have had to defend the organisation from dozens of ill-conceived products, projects and management initiatives. However much I believe in the work I am doing, I respect that the people I contend with are doing so out of loyalty.

Is this conflict inevitable? Will the defenders of IT always be sacrificed on the altar of change?

Sadly, I think they will. Organisations encourage people to be loyal and committed, and though this works well for years, the individuals involved can never know when they should finally capitulate. But as someone who has spent time on both sides of the argument, I have some advice.

If you are proposing change, respect those who resist. They may have spent years defending against multiple ill-conceived initiatives. Engage with them honestly about objectives. People will often agree with the ends more than the means. And if they do not agree with the objectives, then you can tackle that directly rather than wasting time arguing about the details of the changes.

If you find yourself resisting change, remember that those pursuing the change are not out to get you, and would rather have you on their side. Work out what they really want. If you think your position is under threat, remember that being open to change is the most secure option.

And if you run an IT organisation, watch out for putting your people in an impossible situation. If people are too settled and committed to what they are doing, move them around before they can no longer accept change.

This won't get rid of the conflict. But it might make it a little more bearable for all involved.

Next: How PC buying has changed


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