How to Overcome the Resistance to Change

How to Overcome the Resistance to Change

It is hard to believe that we are approaching the year 2020 which is bound to bring more digital disruption to business and IT operations that will have a significant impact on everyone in the organization. Peter Drucker is credited by some as saying, “Culture eats Strategy for Breakfast” (Dyche, 2015, p.4), in other words the culture of the organization needs to change as much if not more than the technology or the methodologies and this is going to be a much bigger challenge.

In 500 BC Heraclitus the Greek Philosopher said that “The Only Thing That Is Constant Is Change -” He seems to have been right and change continues at a much faster pace today, especially in technology. Some people embrace change, some fear it, while others try to avoid it all together but no matter your view change is constant, and it is disruptive. Change arrives at your doorstep in many ways and with it comes the opportunity to respond either in a positive or negative style and to influence those around you.

A few years ago, I had the great opportunity to lead IT at the world’s largest faith-based humanitarian organization as their International CIO. This large Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) had IT staff in 102 countries mostly in the developing world. As you might imagine organizational change in this type of environment was a challenge almost on a daily basis as the majority of employees were focused on solving world hunger and oppression and not on the concerns of IT. NGO’s by nature are non-profit and meeting the bottom line was not always top priority. As the CIO I was charged with bringing systems into the 21st century and reducing the overall cost of IT on a global basis. Organizational Change for IT is difficult in the western world but move that into the developing world with 102 different cultures and the challenges multiply significantly. In order to accomplish this initiative many things needed to happen but most of all I needed to be an influencer so that the vison of what needed to be done would resonate in this multicultural environment. While many IT professional may not have all of the challenges of a large NGO, they still face an uphill battle when attempting to implement major IT changes in their organizations. A recent study indicated that only nine percent of organizational change efforts were successful, that is fewer that one out of ten transformation attempts succeeded. (Arussy, 2018, p. 4)

No one needs to tell IT Professionals that change is inevitable as they have experienced significant changes in just the past few years. The Cloud, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Virtual Agents, Internet of Things (IoT) and other digital disruptive technologies. Customer who embrace cloud technology will have managed a significant level of organization change. Those who continue this transformation journey towards new and innovative technologies will implement even more disruptive changes. This article is not about these new technologies or methodologies it is about the change that they bring and some ideas on how to deal with that change from an organizational perspective.

Considerable materials have been written on the topic of Organizational Change Management and the methods to change corporate culture to adapt to the impact of a large project or of new methodologies. In spite of all these materials the problem still exists and IT executives need to have a strategy to address these issues so that as they implement new tools they will be assimilated successfully into the organization. There is no magic formula or silver bullet but by following some proven principles of Organizational Change Management there is an enhanced opportunity for success.

Taking a look at some of the organizational change management challenges that are required, for example when taking the decision to move to a Service Management Approach of IT by implementing a platform like ServiceNow. In the chart below is the estimated adoption of a major change by the typical organization. As you can see by these estimated numbers and Organizational Change requires some heavy lifting to gain acceptance across the enterprise.


Adapted from P. Atkinson, How to Implement Change Effectively, (2014). P.34

To be effective with major changes like the implementation of a platform such as ServiceNow the IT Organization needs to lead the change not just manage it. Since over 74% of the impacted staff are estimated to be either resistors or fence sitters’ certain steps need to be taken to influence these stakeholders to see the value of the proposed change. In his recent book on Change Management, Arussy (2018) suggests these principles for creating a change resilient culture:

  • Focus of the core cause
  • Demonstrate your personal commitment to change
  • Start every interaction by asking, “What’s Next”
  • Highlight what doesn’t change
  • Set expectations
  • Seek improvement, not validation
  • Emphasize ownership of the outcome
  • Recognize the differences between employees’ styles
  • Encourage experimentation
  • Celebrate innovation

(Adapted from L. Arussy, Next is Now, (2018) pps. 216-217)

As stated, earlier change is the one constant in almost every environment, and this can cause many to become cynics to the next new corporate plan to implement a change. From the chart presented earlier there are resistors and fence sitters and many of them could possibly be considered cynics. So to move a change forward there is a need to change the cynic’s mind about the change that is being implemented. It has been suggested by several studies, (Stanley, Meyer & Topolnytsky) that employee cynicism can be manifested in resistance to change at the organizational level. Due to this finding it is important for management to take this into consideration when attempting to implement changes such as moving to a new Service Management process and platform like ServiceNow. Cynicism is not always easy to overcome it can be addressed by improved communications, adding a trusted advisor within the company to the project team, someone that others look up to and respect. Management should be a transparent about the change as possible to be continue to show the value to the overall organization of this change.

Cynicism is not the only roadblock to organizational change that management needs to consider and to deal with to be successful. The overall organizational culture is a very powerful element that can thwart the efforts of a major organizational change. To help overcome cynicism and other challenges to organizational change to the ability to become an influencer can be a great asset to your success. Too many times management issues a mandate to implement new systems or methodologies and sends the email down the chain expecting results and success. Gartner states in a 2014 survey that only 37% of IT projects are considered successful. If that statistic is true, and there is no reason to believe that it is not, those of us in IT need to review our approach to organizational changes that are created by IT projects and develop the ability to lead and not just manage. “We call this ability to create changes in human behavior influence and the people who do in influencers. At the end of the day, what qualifies people to be called leaders is there capacity to influence others to change” (Grenny, Patterson, Maxfield, McMillian & Switzer, p.6 2013).

As the International CIO of a large NGO I had complete responsibility for all of the IT functions outside the US but did not have the authority to mandate change, I would need to move strategy forward with influence and relationship building. This approach is more difficult and can take a longer time to reach the goal however it is attainable and you can be successful even without a mandate. (Grenny et al., 2013) stated that there are six major sources of influence and each one has a specific focus area and expected outcome. By focusing on these six major sources of influence one has an increased chance to implement major IT initiatives and create organizational change.


Adapted from (Grenney et al, (2013). Influencer p. 70). McGraw Hill Education, New York

By following some of these suggestions and being as transparent about the changes that need to be made will contribute to your success. Communicate as much as possible and be involved with changes as much as possible, be the change champion and allow people to see that IT leadership is behind the change with more than lip service but with support and resources to make the change happen. Consider these points for communication (P. Moncassin, 2013) for any major organizational change as they will help to remove barriers to change and get buy in from the resistors and fence sitters.

  • Enlist visible leaders to paint the vision and be responsible or be the conduit for regular communication.
  • Communicate often and in small chunks. Plan to communicate over an extended period of time throughout the transformation and beyond.
  • Include enough detail to make the communication personal and practical whenever possible.
  • Vary the communication approaches. Some people prefer visual communications. But others respond better to verbal communication.
  • Avoid too specialized vocabulary (a.k.a. “jargon”) or too technical content, especially at the early stages when concepts are being introduced.
  • Explain the continuity, or at least relationship with “traditional” approaches, concepts and practices that individual are familiar with.
  • Welcome resistance to change (to a point).

It is my experience there is no magic bullet that will make everyone accept the changes that need to be made and not everyone will see your vision for the future. According to Gartner statistics only 37% of IT projects are successful and that it is estimated that 74% of employees are either resistors or fence sitters with regard to organizational changes. IT Leadership and especially the CIO need to fully appreciate that no matter how important or necessary a change such as implementing the ServiceNow Platform might be there will resistance. It is futile to not recognize resistance will be present with any major change. Failure to include a plan to mitigate this resistance could negativity impact your initiatives and cause the project to fail or not be as effective as possible.

-Gordon Hodgson


Arussy, L. (2018) Next is Now, Five Steps for Embracing Change. Simon & Schuster

Publishers, New York. p., 4, pps.216-217.

Atkinson, P. (2014) How to Implement Change Effectively. Management Services Autumn

Edition. Ps. 33-38

Dyche, J. (2015) The New IT, How Technology Leaders are Enabling Business Strategy in the

Digital Age. McGraw-Hill Publishers, New York. p.4

Gartner. Run IT Like a Business and What does it Mean and How do you do it. Published by

VMware 2014.

Grenny, J., Patterson, K., Maxfield, D., McMillan, R. & Switzler, A. (2013). Influencer.

McGraw-Hill Publishers, New York.

Moncassin, P., (2013). 7 Communication Tips to Facilitate Culture Change When Adopting a

Cloud Model. VMWare Blogs

Stanley, D., Meyer, J. & Topolnytsky, L. (2005). Employee Cynicism and Resistance to

Organizational Change. Journal of Business and Psychology, Vol. 19, No. 4, summer 2005. Ps.429-459