Handling resistance to digital change

Paul Boag

Proposing a new digital strategy involves change. People dislike change and so you will meet resistance. Handling that resistance can be painful if you are not prepared.

People hate change. Digital involves constant change. That means that if you are a digital professional you will be dealing with a lot of resistance.

It is easy to become frustrated, but we must not. People are not being intentionally difficult. They have legitimate concerns because they don’t understand. It is your job to help them understand. It is your job to guide them through the process.

That is easy when you are talking about the reasoning behind a specific recommendation. But sometimes people throw up more generic objections. Objections designed to resist change, rather than understand the challenge. Objections that are stalling tactics or attempts to discredit your recommendations.

We need to handle these objections with care. That is hard in the heat of a project. That is why I have a cheat-sheet to ensure I remain calm and positive. In this post I share some of the highlights. I hope it will help.

We need more research

This is a classic stalling tactic. By doing more research you avoid action.

My response is that we can always do more research. There is always more to learn because the situation is in a constant state of flux. You will never have enough research so in the end you have to decide to act.

We need more hard data

When people are asking for data they are saying they are afraid. If they have hard data that this will work then it takes away the risk. But it is impossible to provide data that is compelling enough. Even if you have it, people reject it because “you can make numbers say anything”.

Instead you need to tackle the fear by mitigating the risk. Instead of asking people to take a leap of faith, ask them to take tiny steps with small consequences. They will stop worrying about data then.

You don’t understand our circumstances

Individual business silos often claim that your recommendations are incompatible with their specific circumstances.

It is true that you don’t understand all their needs. That is why it is so important to engage with stakeholders. To make them feel listened to.

Ask them to be specific. Ask them exactly how your recommendations impact the way they work. Often these problems are either non-existent or something that can be overcome. If there is a legitimate concern then you have to do a cost/benefit analysis of the change.

That is not how we do things

Sometimes people will argue that your suggestions aren’t in line with how the organisation works. That it is not a good cultural fit. This may well be true.

In such circumstances you need to gently show how that culture is becoming incompatible with the market. That it is not your recommendations that do not fit, but the culture of the organisation. That it will become irrelevant if it is not willing to embrace cultural change.

You should have considered other approaches

There are always other approaches. No number of options would ever be enough. People are just using this argument to slow the process down. Not because they would be more open to other options.

Explain that you considered many options, and the reasons for choosing this approach. But say you are open to discussing other approaches if people can make specific recommendations.

If they make recommendations do not dismiss or criticise them. Instead ask questions. Questions that highlight potential problem areas.

There should have been more emphasis on…

Comments like this aim to discredit your recommendation by proposing you have focused on the wrong thing. In truth you will have had only limited time and money. This will restrict the scope of your research and recommendations.

Explain that you had to draw a line somewhere. Then go on to explain how you can tackle their concerns later if they remain an issue.

You have made assumptions

Of course you made assumptions. Nobody can know everything or understand every nuance of an organisation. But whoever is accusing you of this will be making their own assumptions.

Explain that we all bring our own assumption to any discussion. But that the research you have done gives you a broader picture. That your background in digital gives you a relevant perspective on the need for change.

This needs more discussion

This is another stalling tactic. You can always discuss things in more depth or with more people. But you have to find a balance between making a decision and moving forward.

Any change involves an element of risk and uncertainty. More discussion will not resolve that. In the end you need to take action. What is more there is a greater risk in not making a decision as you alienate users and are overtaken by competitors.

We can’t make that kind of investment

Money can be a legitimate issue. But it can also be an excuse. This is why it is so important that you have outlined what return your recommendations bring.

But even that is not enough sometimes. One solution is to compare the expenditure with what the organisation spends elsewhere. For example I work with Universities who spend millions on physical facilities. Digital facilities cost only a fraction of that. Highlighting this put things into perspective.

You can also highlight the cost of not implementing your recommendations. People tend to think of doing nothing as being without cost, but that is rarely the case.

We don’t have the people to do this

A lack of manpower is another legitimate problem. But again it can be an excuse. Often this comes down to prioritisation more than people. You could do the work if you prioritise it.

But sometimes you will have to hire new staff to put in place a recommendation. Most management teams don’t like the long term commitment of hiring people. If that is your organisation, recommend hiring people on short term contracts.

This will never be accepted by…

This is a big one. Instead of people rejecting an idea themselves, they will say somebody else will reject it. Sometimes this is a sincere belief, other times it is a tactic to scupper the idea. Either way the solution is the same, speak to whoever will supposedly reject the idea. More often than not the problem goes away.

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Don’t let them drag you down

All this seems like a lot of work. I know it can feel frustrating. But the truth is you need the support of others to bring about digital change. Changes that will impact the jobs of others.

That means convincing people that your recommendations will work. You don’t exist in a bubble and so an important part of your job is to bring colleagues along for the ride.