Change resistance is a friend

The conversations about change resistance seems to be reopened regularly. Here is my contribution, practical perspectives to understand and to work with it.

Resistance may feel like swamp soccer.

Change resistance is a friend

  • Resistance has an important psychological function. It guards against things that cause too much fear or anxiety, that would otherwise undermine the ability to function.
  • Resistance prevents stupid things from happening. The more important thing is going to be changed, the more resistance.
  • Resistance buys time to learn and adapt.
  • As a leader, when I encounter resistance, I am able to work with it. No resistance – no work – no progress.

Change resistance is an everyday phenomenon. It is integral to all new; change, learning and doing my work now. You work with it when you wake up in the morning. Some people tend to resist more some less.

Many find resistance frustrating and would like just to get rid of it. That is like wishing for a physical world without friction. I sometimes hear about breaking the resistance by force. To me it sounds amusing – such an attempt would only make the resistance change shape.

The term resistance is easily taken as judgmental or offending. In reality it is a neutral defensive reaction, not targeted against anyone. When it happens in the organizational conversation, it effects different players’ interests and becomes subjectively good or bad.

In organizations you find change resistance especially when you touch personal and important things:

  • The power structures are threatened
  • People’s personal needs are threatened. Good guesses for the specific needs are autonomy, recognition, safety, rest, or connection.
  • There is more work coming. Learning, by the way, is really hard work, which is too often forgotten.

Conscious resistance is easy to work with – it is fair challenging. Be happy when you encounter it! Unconscious resistance is delusive, undermining resolution, draining energy, dizzying, distracting, causing emotions, manifesting in strange actions.

Possible manifestations of (unconscious) resistance:

  • Forgetting the basic task
  • Forgetting the targets
  • Strong feelings of lameness, stagnation, irrelevance or resistance
  • Postponing and delaying
  • Intellectual arguing about theory so that reality is blurred or forgotten
  • Staying away, busying oneself with other things
  • Delegating things away
  • Shunning, being late, staying away, forgetting,
  • Lack of commitment
  • Not keeping contracts
  • Not understanding and not asking – not caring
  • Neglecting or denying the value of the topic
  • Extended talking about irrelevant things

Obviously it is easier to work with the unconscious resistance, when you first recognize it. But how?

Human beings have delicate mechanisms to share mind states with each others (mirror neurons and so on). You can use yourself as an instrument: Whenever you feel strange, wake up and observe carefully!

Leading is working with resistance

Leadership constantly works with resistance, in oneself and others. The forms of resistance change and develop while the work progresses.

The guideline is to return to the principal task. Again and again. Just like meditation… finally leading to flow.

It is best to point out observations how the work is (not) progressing and ask how to continue. You may offer observations like “For the last 10 minutes we have talked about Y, while we agreed to talk about X.” Maybe there is resistance because X is too threatening. May be Y is actually more important. Or that we have not yet spotted the real roadblock Z.

When time is ripe, you may talk about the phenomenon of resistance, and let people themselves find out their own ways to resist. Usually it is wise to use a separate occasion for learning about the resistance phenomenon. Having the word in the organizations vocabulary makes a difference.

Resistance transfers from team to the leader. The leader needs to observe ones own resistance in order to be able to function. Ability to tolerate separation is very necessary for leaders.

Resistance is a very strong and contagious force. It is useful to prepare and have productive antidotes for the situation:

  • Understand your own role, interests and goals. Keep available a note about them for yourself.
  • Understand the principal task. Prepare with many ways to remind about it.
  • Plan the meeting in question.
  • Understand the phenomenon of resistance. Understanding group phenomenon and human interaction is beneficial.
  • Regularly check Your posture, physical balance and breathing.
  • Take a break. During a break talk with an ally or make contact with the most active resister.
  • Take a distance from the group. Mentally, or physically by walking away from the group.
  • Reflect the experience afterwards.

Work with the right questions

At work people strive for a goal. This is often called the principal task, the value-adding work. It is the expressed intention at the levels of individual, group or organization. Related to this people solve problems with e.g. process, resourcing, business or technology. (It is always valuable to ask, what the principal task really is.)

People are, however, people. Especially when many. They have other questions at the same time, related to e.g. human needs, group dynamics or the organizational integrity. These other questions:

  • Take attention, time and energy
  • Do matter, have potentially significant consequences
  • Have second order consequences – build the culture, learning and so on
  • Block working with the principal task for shorter or longer time

In order to optimally promote the principal task, you need to recognize the right question and work with it. Forcing a solution to the wrong question does not really help. Have you ever heard: “Does not concern us, because we are rational adults.” Or “We can skip those, because we don’t have time.”

Conscious questions are the obvious normal stuff, technical and social things that people have learned to handle. Sources of questions

Pre-conscious questions are recognizable, especially when you try. You can observe and talk about them, and they become somewhat conscious. Examples:

  • Suppressed topics, taboos, cultural issues
  • Human needs: e.g. autonomy, safety, recognition, being heard…
  • Questions of trust, power, status
  • Question of leadership and dependency
  • Group dynamics
  • Should I invest the effort
  • Envy and competition – a sensitive topic
  • Games people play
  • Constantly ongoing inclusion and exclusion
  • Resistance, individual and group defense mechanisms e.g. groupthink
  • And some special cases

  • Scapegoat syndrome, tends to repeat
  • Pathological narcissism, difficult and dangerous

Oops. The list grows so easily! I will come back to these!

Unconscious is not observable. It can be considered the creative source where the other stuff emerges. You can not predict how the unconscious will respond to your actions.

Most of the times, things go naturally with no major roadblocks, just some very frustrating or insensible moments. People work with the preconscious questions unconsciously, and solutions emerges. This baseline is not the full potential – working consciously with the questions probably leads to a better solution. The group/team development is a good example.

It saves time and energy, if someone experienced can recognize the present questions and help to handle them consciously. Often just making the correct guess, giving a name to the question, makes it dissolve quickly, and the work can continue. Sometimes the interpretation is too much, and the group does not accept it. The proper timing, dose and form matters.

Sometimes, the unrecognized questions really block or deteriorate the work, and external help is beneficial.

A good situational leader, may it be boss, coach or scrum master:

  • Knows this preconscious people stuff. Actually it is not complicated, but needs some practise.
  • Has courage and social permission to work with all kinds of questions
  • Is able to use oneself as an instrument. For example when you feel strange, what is really going on? Are these feelings mine or what?

This is also called emotional intelligence. Surprisingly, it can be learned and practiced. I have coached many technically oriented people, who have turned to be emotionally talented – once they got the permission. The organizational culture and narrow identities sometimes really block people from using their full capability.

Three Interests causing alienation and a leadership vacuum

In the previous post I studied a local organizational Gap. This time I look at the whole business. From theoretical point of view these phenomena are just obvious, I found their significance by observing real organizations. This model has been helpful for understanding the product manager’s world.

I have seen this in many organizations, also in small companies. It hints, that healthy and close human interaction in an organization is a significant competitive advantage. Secondly, change is free, actually profitable – just Go and See and there will be many opportunities.

Three conflicting Interests


Every organization has three stakeholders that each have a significant Interests. There are high stakes, energy and passion. (interest with a capital I refers to the specific Interests)

The investors are playing in the capital market. They wish for a reasonable ROI and fear for losing their investment.

The customers and end users wish for a functional product for a reasonable price, and fear e.g. for bad quality and difficulties in the support.

The value adding workers wish e.g. for satisfactory working condition, a reasonable compensation and a safe future.
All three stakeholders need the organization, wishing it to stay alive and productive. All stakeholders have both long and short term interests.
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The Gap between the R&D and the product management

While looking around in any organization, you most probably recognize the Gap between the product management/PO and the R&D/Teams/designers. It is significant in surprisingly small organizations.

This becomes obvious when starting Scrum. The Gap has always been there. Why? What have been the workarounds earlier? Why is it important to understand the root cause? Actually there are more gaps on the value stream…

The Gap

the Gap between R&D and Product management

Drawing the Gap on a flipboard often stops the blame war.

Have you ever heard the following, when taking Scrum into use:

Team: Scrum says Give us the prioritized backlog.
Product manager: Yes, but we don’t know about tech, you do. Here You have the 5-liner. Just start working.
Team: Yes, but we need to know where to start.
PM: Yes, but we can’t prioritize technical items, you have always done it.
Team: But we can not work if we don’t know the priorities for the next sprint.
PM: What’s wrong with you?
And so on…

The Gap means simply that there is too little knowledge power, too few people who would understand both technology and business. I have many many times experienced how drawing this picture on a flipboard will stop the blame war in the room, when people realize that it is the system, not us.
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Focusing on projects ruins your business

I have seen product development projects used as tool to extract results from the organization. It has been chosen to solve an organizational problem. It worked in certain conditions, but when the organization grew and outside competition became harder yesterday’s solution became today’s problem.

I try to explain my point with a lifecycle of an imaginary organization. My real life example companies vary from 15 people to thousands.

Startup phase

Once upon a day a group of engineers started to develop a product. In the beginning everyone knew each other and there was fluent informal communication. The techno-cultural foundation was laid. The business started to grow.

Growth and the first coordination crisis

Money comes in and the organization grows. There is more coordination work, so some developers become managers. The organization develops “naturally”, creating specialized roles and competences. There are more customers and releases. Ownership of the product gradually becomes scattered. There are bottleneck resources.

At some point the “professional project management” steps in. It is solving the coordination problem, one project at a time. The project manager has permission (by role) to demand results. She becomes powerful member of the organization, getting credit for creating order and bringing money in. Often the personality of the project managers support this specialization. Portfolio management still works or is less important. Business does well.

This is a critical bifurcation point, a leadership crisis of unrealized significance . There is still an opportunity to start a Lean evolution. My example goes to the mainstream way. From the psychological perspective this is the easiest solution. It requires least personal change from the most of the people.

Gradual Scattering of the organization

Eventually there are several parallel and sequential programs going on at the same time. Each project is re-built and re-learned every time, because they surprisingly are different from the previous one. The projects becomes a separate powerful dimension of the organization.

The projects become a kind of device extracting money out of the complex and uncontrollable organization. The business management alienates from the R&D, because the real value seems to come from the project device – the development can be replaced, off-shored, outsourced. Long term development of the R&D is seen risky and difficult. Frustration and distrust grows at both sides.

You may recognize one or more of the following characteristics:

Short term rules. Quick fix. Avoid conflict. Nonproductive feedback. Gap between business, customer and development. Continuous reorg. Exploit development. Specialization and separation of responsibility. Cling to nonfunctional ERP. Clear social classes within the organization. Big power differences. Command and control. Waiting. Big plans. Wish for predictability. Slow and vague feedback. Learning and improvement don’t work. Projects compete of resources. Cost management. Number management. Measure hours. Maximize resource utilization. Knowledge and power seems always to be elsewhere.

Market saturation and the productivity crisis

Now the product (family) is growing old. And there is competition. The business management is facing a situation where the portfolio management is very difficult because of the complicated product and organization; lack of transparency and flexibility.

Even in this situation, I have seen the management to grab the tool that used to work, trying desperately to improve the project management. This is very painful for the project managers.

My point here is, that in product development you may do excellent “conventional” projects, and fail. Even fail because the projects have been successful.

My vote for the one word root cause would be overspecialization.

Please comment and share experiences, I have not emptied this subject.