Anyone who has ever proposed any sort of change – be it in a professional or in a personal setting –will likely recognize that sinking feeling when their audience inevitably starts voicing numerous reservations and explaining why it can’t possibly work.
It is frustrating to present a new idea (well thought through and fail-proof, to one’s own mind) and have it shot down with “yes, but” objections. Even a win-win solution, which aims to satisfy all involved parties and eliminate undesired side effects, will not necessarily be met with enthusiasm.
Seven layers from problem to solution
Resistance to change tends to go through several “layers”, ranging from the identification of the problem all the way to the implementation of the developed solution, and slotting into the different phases of the Change Process. These layers can differ slightly from case to case, both in kind and in importance. Generally, six to seven layers are identified:
What to change?
- Layer 0: There is no problem.
What are you talking about, everything is fine!
- Layer 1: Disagreeing on the problem.
So what is the problem? or How is this my problem?
What to change to?
- Layer 2: Disagreeing on the direction of the solution.
And this is supposed to solve our problem?
- Layer 3: Disagreeing that the solution will actually resolve the problem.
This will never work. This is pointless.
- Layer 4: Worrying about potential negative side-effects of the solution.
How to cause the change?
- Layer 5: Disagreeing on how to remove obstacles during implementation of the solution.
We will never manage!
- Layer 6: Lack of co-operation despite agreement.
Why is nothing happening?
Recognizing resistance as an opportunity
It can be all too tempting to label those who raise objections as chronic complainers, stubborn or even obtuse. In many cases, employees’ worries are quite legitimate, or at least understandable based on the information available to them: maybe they are unclear on what they can gain from the change, afraid of unforeseen consequences, or perhaps they have had past experiences where change initiatives came to nothing and just wasted everyone’s time.
Simply ignoring these reservations can have dire consequences: employees will likely disengage from or even actively resist the proposed changes. But in addition to that, the organization will miss an opportunity for a truly successful change: objections and reservations can only strengthen an initiative, provided they are dealt with and effectively resolved in collaboration with all involved.
The order in which these layers are worked through is important. Just as with the skin of an onion, you will work your way from the outside in, as Efrat Ashlag-Goldratt1 explains. There is no point discussing a solution before everyone can agree on the nature (or even the existence) of the problem. A structured process also has the benefit of focusing the discussion and thus ensuring it remains productive. The point of the “game” is not to play each other off with the stronger argument, but for all parties to work together in order to find the best possible solution for the organization.
Based on Efrat Ashlag-Goldratt, The basic Layers of Resistance based on the TOC questions of change2
Layer 0: Agreeing on the existence of the problem
Even if you think that the problem’s symptoms are plain to see, others may not agree. People (and systems) are very good at ignoring enduring issues. If everyone is convinced that the problem cannot be resolved, they will develop workarounds in order to circumvent it. The problem becomes part of the normal state of affairs and is practically invisible.
The negative consequences (i.e. the visible symptoms) can be a useful starting point to help others recognize the existence of the problem. Another approach is to remind them of the organization’s goals: are we reaching them at the speed we had expected? If not, why is that so?
In any case, it is very important to listen to all parties and understand how they are coming to their conclusions. Which assumptions are underneath their conviction that there is no problem? Can these assumptions be analyzed, their validity verified? This will allow you to slowly guide people towards the reality that a problem does exist. The next step, then, is to define it.
Layer 1: Agreement on the nature of the problem
Even if all involved agree that there is a problem, this does not mean they are all talking about the same problem. Their own role in the organization (determining which symptoms they may encounter), their experience (of other problems they’ve had to deal with in the past) or expectations (their own aims and objectives) will influence the picture everyone has of the problem. In order to ensure everyone is on the same page and talking about the same thing, it is important to clearly define and delineate the nature of the problem.
It can often be difficult to agree on a common root cause for the disparate symptoms felt by individual people. There is a risk of trying to improve local symptoms while the core problem is allowed to remain. Additionally, the benefits of resolving this core problem will often be diffuse and unclear to stakeholders: the change barely seems worth the risk.
Source: Uwe Techt, Current Reality Tree (wenn=if, dann=then)3
This is where the current reality tree becomes a helpful tool to represent the situation and identify the core conflict on the basis of the underlying cause-and-effect relationships (sufficient cause principle). This allows you to reveal the relationships between individual, seemingly unrelated effects and to find the cause common to all.
Once everyone agrees on the nature of the problem, you can move on to the solution. We will present the remaining five layers in the next post.
1: Efrat Ashlag-Goldratt (2010), p. 573
3: Uwe Techt (2006), p. 166
Efrat Ashlag-Goldratt, “The Layers of Resistance — The Buy-In Process According to TOC” from Cox III, James F., und Schleier Jr., John G., Ed. Theory of Constraints Handbook. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2010. p. 571-584
Francis S. Patrick, Using Resistance to Change (and the TOC Thinking Processes) to Improve Improvements, 2005
Uwe Techt, Goldratt und die Theory of Constraints, Lulu Press , 2006