Overcoming Organizational Resistance to Change: Gauging, Steering Executive Support

This is the first post in a four-part series that discusses strategies and tactics to overcome resistance to organizational change in the public sector. The next installment will be posted in two weeks. Anyone who has ever engaged in business transformation efforts has encountered organizational resistance to change. This resistance to change is especially acute in the public sector, specifically, the Federal Government. While the private sector initiative champion is typically armed with a comprehensive, quantitative analysis that confirms the benefits of a business transformation effort and placates organizational resistance to change, in the public sector one does not have the luxury of silencing critics with a meticulous ROI or Net Present Value analysis.

In the absence of a profit and loss motive (and in an operations Graphic Outlining Series on Organization Changeenvironment too often characterized by ambiguous, overly-generalized estimates of cost avoidance and cost savings) convincing federal employees and stakeholders of the benefits of change is especially difficult. Therefore, achieving lasting and impactful transformative change in the Federal Government requires adeptness in navigating organizational resistance to change.

Over the course of the coming weeks, I'll present four key change management challenges and discuss ways in which these challenges can be overcome. The four topics discussed in this blog series do not provide a complete set of best practices for overcoming public sector organizational resistance to change. However, when coupled with the traditional, organization-neutral methods for overcoming resistance to change (e.g. stakeholder training, leveraging personal relationships, selecting charismatic initiative team leaders), the five nuanced strategies described in this paper provide a firm foundation for successfully overcoming resistance to change in Federal Agencies.

More specifically, I'll focus on the implementation aspect of business transformation. In selecting a business transformation initiative, organizations must always be mindful of the organizational resistance that the initiative is likely to encounter. However, rather than limiting its transformative ambitions, an organization is better served by improving its change management abilities. Therefore, the aim of this blog is to present change management strategies that empower Federal Agencies to pursue more impactful business transformation initiatives.

Gauging and Steering Executive Support

Problem: Without an executive directive sanctioning the business transformation initiative from the onset of the effort, most employees simply will not take the initiative seriously. However, a directive issued before the new process or initiative is clearly defined can leave employees confused, frustrated and disillusioned – unaware of what they are supposed to be doing or changing.

Solution: The solution is in the language: The executive directive (issued by the agency COO or someone of similar, executive status) does in fact need to be issued at an early stage in the business transformation effort. Employees must know that a mandate is in place, and that change will occur. However, the employees must also believe that they have the power to shape the process rather than having it forced down their throat.

This balance can be achieved through a carefully worded directive stating that “an exploratory committee has been formed to develop …….” or that the agency “recognizes a need to improve…. and over the next five months will reengineer the processes and policies surrounding…..”

The language in the directive must be firm and clear in communicating that the initiative has a designated implementation date and will result in a concrete outcome that has teeth. However, the directive must also communicate that the new processes/solutions are a work in progress and that employee feedback will be solicited in shaping the final outcome. Stating in the directive exactly how this feedback will be collected (e.g. Initiative Roadshow) provides further credence to the notion that agency management is genuinely committed to bottom-up innovation. Initiative champions should work closely with agency executives to craft the language and ensure that a carefully worded directive is issued before implementation efforts begin.

The supplemental benefit of the effort to issue a formal directive is that it allows the initiative champion to gauge the executives’ level of commitment to the business transformation. Discord amongst the executives as to the language in the directive or a long delay in its issuance; such occurrences are an unambiguous sign that the initiative does not have the necessary executive support to succeed.

By focusing on crafting and communicating the initiative policy early on in the effort’s lifecycle, the initiative champion is able to unveil many critical problems upfront and focus on overcoming those risks before moving forward with other initiative tasks. Overcoming organizational resistance to change requires executive support and solidarity coupled with the flexibility to iterate based on stakeholder needs. In the absence of these conditions, business transformation cannot occur.