Startup Lessons for Transformations: resistance builds better change

With this post I’m kicking off a series of reflections on startup thinking and leading change. As it is on resistance, it doubles as my (late!) entry in the #changeblogchallenge. Got one of your own? Drop a link to yours in the comments!

So, people are pushing back on your change initiative? Congrats! You’ve managed to cut through the noise and get people’s attention. Some startups I have known and worked with would be green with envy.

Change leaders can learn a lot from startups and startup thinking – particularly when it comes to receiving difficult feedback. The first is that resistance can be feedback: a response to a change you are proposing that can be mined for improvement possibilities. It is irrelevant whether the change is using a startup’s new app, working in a new organizational structure or running meetings differently.

Resistance can be feedback: a response to a change you are proposing that can be mined for improvement possibilities. Click To Tweet

The deafening silence some startups face is so frustrating because working in a vacuum means little information available for determining how to move forward and progress. And this is a key insight from startup thinking: learning is the fuel required for growth. For any information, whether it be resistance, criticism, praise etc. to be considered feedback, it must be taken as a basis for improvement.

The key word is “taken” because this is an act of the receiver not of the sender. Criticism can be taken as food for improvement or rejected as loathsome complaint. The word “feedback” is instructive because it already contains the germ of the idea of growth, of ‘nourishing in return’. Seen from this angle, resistors are offering sustenance – feeding – change leaders with vital information about their change project.

The very word 'feedback' contains the idea of 'nourishing in return'. Resistors are feeding change leaders vital information about their change project. Click To Tweet

Change resistance can be transformed from frustrating conversation to feedback by a change in perception. The shift is seeing resistance as potentially containing rich information for your change project. But this must often be decoded. For example:

You Hear: You Learn About:
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
“We’ve always done it this way.”
The change readiness of the person or organization
“This project is dead on arrival
without the support of…”
“One workshop won’t change anything.”
The change mechanics of the organization
“This project is too ambitious.”
“It doesn’t go nearly far enough.”

the magnitude of the change for the organization
“We don’t need that.”
“This is not our priority.”
the perceived value of the change

While resistance can contain valuable inputs and guidance for your change project, learning from it isn’t always that easy. And the first reason is that we are not often open to receiving this kind of feedback in the first place.

Embrace the Pain

In his book The Culture Code, Daniel Coyle, makes the point that “it’s important not simply to tolerate the difficult news but to embrace it…it’s not enough to not shoot [the messenger]. You need to embrace the messenger, to tell them how much you appreciate their feedback.”

There are three important reasons for embracing the messenger bearing critical feedback:

  1. You may learn something important – even essential – that could make all the difference for your project (see the list above).
  2. Even if you don’t learn something this time, you make it safe for people to feel comfortable enough to tell you the truth next time (see reason 1).
  3. Messengers carry messages…in both directions. Resistors are bringing you a message; they will also take one away from your interaction…what will it be?
What message are you sending resistance messengers back to the rest of the organization with?

Unfortunately, rejection, defensiveness, counter-attacks and burying our heads in the sand are more common – and very human – reactions to critical pushback. It is not easy to show up to the uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure that critical feedback and resistance represent.

I find it helps to remember that for many people, expressing honest, critical feedback is itself an act of courage fraught with uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure for the person offering it. Graciously accepting this “gift” as such will go a long way to opening learning channels, building goodwill and sending strong signals to the rest of the organization.

Seek Out the Hard Truths

Embracing the critical feedback you are presented with is an important place to start but often doesn’t go far enough – primarily because we might be hearing only crickets. I argue change leaders, like startup founders, need to become fanatical about feedback, actively seeking it out, even if that means provoking the naysayers, sceptics and critics to get it. One of the first barriers to feedback is the project office, the war room, the lab, etc.

Change leaders, like startup founders, need to become fanatical about feedback, actively seeking out and even provoking the naysayers, sceptics and critics. Click To Tweet

Many change projects, corporate startups, incubators etc., co-locate groups in a dedicated location to improve focus and collaboration on the task at hand. However, the project office can also lead to dangerous isolation. I have seen both startups and project teams barricaded within their comfortable echo chambers only venturing out occasionally to solicit the relatively safe opinions of their inner circles (friends, allies, sponsors, direct reports etc.).

To coin a phrase from Steve Blank in his classic The Four Steps to the Epiphany, “in a change initiative, no facts exist inside the project office, only opinions.” Teams must get out and confront the often thorny facts beyond the post-it covered walls. But just getting outside the office doesn’t mean we have broken out of the project office bubble. Often, we engineer ways of taking it with us.

Staying in the project office bubble too long can result in fragile and fleeting change support when confronted with the hard reality.

I recall working with a project team to help them prepare the onboarding of senior stakeholders for a significant change under way in their organization. The team had requested my help in identifying engaging questions they could pose to the C-level executives during their meetings. I proposed starting off with open-ended empathy-map questions about what the leaders were hearing, seeing and feeling from their staff on the ground.

The team immediately and unanimously rejected this approach. It turned out they were expecting negative reports from the field to have escalated to the top and were therefore strictly opposed to creating any opportunity for the executives to repeat the criticism they might have heard from below.

It was a perfectly normal reaction to want to avoid negative views from a superior. And it can be perfectly fatal for both startups and change projects alike.

It is perfectly normal to want to avoid negative criticism or bad news. And it can be perfectly fatal for both startups and change projects alike. Click To Tweet

More than anything, change leaders need the truth, even – no, especially – when it’s ugly. And they need to hear it as early as possible to engage and work with it, potentially correct course or even make the hard decision to pivot while there is still runway left ahead of them. As startup guru Eric Ries has said, “it’s better to have bad news that is true than good news we made up.”

The project team discovered the value of the truth when they were ambushed by the executive who began the meeting by unloading all of the negative things she had heard about the project…and who then proceeded to explain why she felt the change was nonetheless critical for the organization and offered her assistance in addressing the weaknesses in their approach.

No Traction without Resistance

Without resistance, your project may just be spinning its wheels in the air. There can be lots of activity, progress against the plan and positive feedback. But if you aren’t hearing any grumblings, nobody has asked a killer question and everything appears to be going smoothly, then you should be checking that your change project hasn’t lost contact with the ground.

There is no traction without resistance. Without resistance, your project may just be spinning its wheels in the air. Click To Tweet
It may be fast…once the rubber hits the road.

If it has lost touch with the facts outside the office, get out and start some “resistance training” to ensure your change will be able to handle the heavy lifting once d-day arrives. Do this by building and deploying prototypes, taking your change “on the road”, organizing pre-mortems, soliciting killer questions etc.

It often helps to get people to come down out of the stands into the arena with you if you start off with some tough or unexpected questions yourself, for example:

  • If we held an open forum about why this change is a terrible idea/will never work, what would be the main things we would hear?
  • Imagine it is a year from now and that this change has failed miserably: what are the primary reasons?
  • If we didn’t want this change to be adopted, what should we be sure to do?

Don’t be content with crickets. Get people to start making some noise. If they already are, thank them, learn from it and go build an even better, stronger change…

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