Managing resistance to change in projects

Its doubtfull that all projects will experience 100% support during their lifetime with most meeting some difficulties along the way. Of these, one of the most challenging to overcome can be resistance against the project itself – often termed “resistance to change”.

When people perceive change as a threat, they will endeavour to resist that change. This resistance can come in many shapes and forms. Consider the following:

• Attempting to derail activities/project through highlighting and emphasising weaknesses
• Utilizing peer groups to obtain influence

Resistance can be particularly damaging to projects as it can, if it gains sufficient momentum, question:

• The purpose of the deliverable
• The choice of deliverable
• The project methodology
• Individuals within the project team or steering committee
• 3rd party suppliers
• Awareness of likely issues and risks

Obviously this is not an exhaustive list but for some individuals, it is very easy to critique a project, to find fault with it and to communicate why it won’t succeed. As project managers we need to deal with this sort of stakeholder behaviour.

Why is managing resistance important?

Simply put resistance can derail projects – it can build a momentum and influence decision makers to the detriment of your objectives as project manager

But how should you manage it?

1/ Understand your stakeholders

Everybody wants something and actions are motivated by those needs. The need might be “I want to be secure in my job” to “I’d like more involvement in the project”. The best way is to analyze your stakeholders. This task typically involves assessing the organization and its reporting lines, breaking out individuals into groups (influencers, non influencers) and then further segmenting them by analyzing whether they are a supporter or a resistor. You can then gear your action plans around these results.

2/ Build an effective communications plan

One of the fundamental reasons for resistance to build is through poor communication from the project team – when people don’t know why projects are being used, their benefits, or how it will/wont affect them they can become (perhaps unsurprisingly distrustful).

3/ Involve “saboteurs”

When you involve people the chances are they will be more supportive and work with you. If you can involve them as part of the planning or execution process then so much the better as by being part of the ‘project team’ they are less likely to attempt to bring it down. Consider how you can utilize those who appear resistant within your project in order to mitigate potentially adversarial behaviour.

4/ Don’t hide from criticism

While it can be uncomfortable try not to ignore the difficult questions – people ask them for a good reason – provide validation for example “i understand your concerned, this is how i intend to deal with it” be inclusive (involve them) in problem solving – if you get it wrong don’t be afraid to admit it.

5/ Ensure your project sponsor shows leadership

Influencing senior peer groups is often the most important aspect to managing resistance – once senior decision makers question your project you are in trouble. Utilize your network, steering meeting for example, to build confidence and advocates that can then be flowed out to the rest of the organization through their own organizations.

6/ Manage team behaviour

By shaping the environment around your project you can influence those outside it. If the project appears chaotic, lacking discipline and purpose it will be much more open to criticism. As project manager you will need to manage stakeholders effectively – the same is true of your project team. Ensure they team know the ground rules about how to interact with stakeholders, what the warning signs to look out for are and how to escalate issues prior to them getting out of control.

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