change management scaled

Summary of: Soliciting and Using Input During Organizational Change Initiatives: What Are Practitioners Doing? by Laurie K. Lewis and Travel L. Russ, Management Communication Quarterly, 26(2) 2012

This academic paper that has been peered review is a natural follow up to the previous blog posting on March 14, 2023 about starting a major transformational change initiative by soliciting small groups first.

When starting small, how do you determine who to start with? 

One key component to all change initiatives is to seek out, listen to, and address resistance. Resistance often conjures up an image of someone willing to sabotage the change effort. In change management, the term resistance is not only as someone pushing back, it is anyone with a question, obstacle, challenge, issue or misalignment regarding the change. 

Seeking resistance and addressing it early in the change has many benefits for the change initiative. Largely, it sheds light on the change from many different perspectives. It can then help craft a better message, approach, or even a better solution.

How change practitioners seek input

Lewis and Truss solicited 26 experienced internal change practitioners for a thorough interview that was then qualitatively interpreted. I mention this because the authors identified their sample as a limitation of their study. I will come back to this briefly at the end.

The purpose of the study was to glean how change practitioners solicit input from those impacted by the change during the change process. The body of knowledge on this topic had been purely academic, suggesting what would be best practices.

It is no surprise to me that these 26 change practitioners rarely sought volunteers to provide input about the change initiative through open invitations. Instead, they looked for people who would have a favorable disposition to the change or were identified as predictable early adopters for the change. Further, Lewis and Truss found that these change practitioners generally avoided seeking input from those who might have negative comments about the change. I am not surprised for a variety of reasons.

  1. The internal change practitioners’ role is to get the change to the finish line and with an acceptable level of adoption. The faster they do this for their organization, the more they are seen as proficient or even exceptional in their jobs.
  2. Often times, executives have made the decision to make a change and do not intend to alter their direction. That means soliciting input that could potentially point to problem is counterintuitive for an internal change practitioner. It disrupts their efforts to get to the finish line and could be politically disastrous to expose.
  3. Company culture, both on the organizational level and the smaller team level, often leads to biases people may have about giving open input. Let’s be realistic, some cultures have consequences for being honest when it goes against the grain. Individuals may have biases about teams or groups of people that may influence how they take in the feedback. For example, talking to a group of IT people about a technological change versus a team that does not use technology at the same level, such as facilities-oriented personnel.

Lewis and Truss found that the change practitioners they interviewed tended to seek those in the organization who will be supportive and influential to others in the organization. One example came from a change practitioner who routinely pilots new programs with branches where she has developed a relationship. When the new program adds value, she then takes it to other branches and the resistance is supposedly lessened because other teams are onboard.

asking others

Consequences of hearing from only one side

If you’re not an experienced change practitioner, this seems like an instinctive approach to take—start small and grow from there. That was the premise of the article I highlighted in my March 14, 2023 blog. However, constantly seeking out people who will be favorable to the change has consequences.

First, it shows favoritism to those who will say yes. Second, this makes those with bonafide resistance feel like the change happened to (just) them. Over time these individuals and teams can become more resistant because they did not feel heard. And lastly, it results in group think. If an organization builds solutions for only some of those in the organization, chances are changes are not going to be fully realized on a consistent basis.

In my first blog on March 14, 2023, I stated that organizational change fails more than it succeeds. I think this article exposes one possible reason for the statistic being high (about 70% of the time for transformational change). Change impacts people differently—but no matter whether it small or large, there is always an impact. For change to truly be successful, the solution needs to work for all involved—including external stakeholders. External stakeholders are rarely sought out, instead leaders and change practitioners opt for internal stakeholders who will be serving the external stakeholders as their source of knowledge for making changes.

The value of co-creating change

Co-creating change is essential for the change to be fully adopted. This means that the teams co-creating have decision-making input into the solution, not merely being an advisory committee.

I was involved as an external change practitioner for an organization that solicited opinions from a group in the field. These individuals were hand-picked for their influence, experience, and pro-company opinions and actions. The co-creation team had wide insights into how to make the solutions better for themselves (those in the field) as well as their customers. Yet, when the team met, it was merely for the organization to tell them what the solution was and ask how it should be positioned for the field. There was no empowerment and no co-creating of the solution. As a result, the selected employees were often frustrated that the various stages of the solution did not include their suggestions.

Seeking resistance and addressing it early is a key activity for change practitioners. Doing so takes time. It can also expose the fact that the solution (or change) is flawed. It may also cause conflict, which is difficult for many individuals to navigate. This is why I’m not surprised that the 26 internal change practitioners involved in this study did not fully engage in finding resistance in their organizations. This perhaps is a good reason to consider hiring an outside change practitioner who can play the role of finding resistance with no burden of organizational agenda or bias.

Back to the starting question of who to start a change initiative with. If the goal is to make the best solution (change) possible, my experience suggests 1) it be the group or groups most impacted by the change and 2) is made up of people who most likely will have some resistance to share.

Co-creating takes time, yet, it creates a change that more people can fully adopt and does so in a manner that respects and empowers people.