Five strategies to use when the rebellion comes

Sometimes there's good reason to resist change. However, other people may not feel the same way. Here's what to do when they all get together and you're faced with a grassroots rebellion.

Sometimes there's good reason to resist change. However, other people may not feel the same way. Here's what to do when they all get together and you're faced with a grassroots rebellion. 


Previously I mentioned that one way to overcome resistance in the face of change is by getting together a group of like-minded people and forming a grassroots rebellion. It can be an effective method to steamroller roadblocks, but what do you do when you are the roadblock that needs to be steamrolled? In that case, there are a few tactics you can employ.

Start by remembering why

The first thing to remember is that there is a reason for why you're currently doing things. More often than not, the policies, procedures, and technologies being used are in place based on the careful assessment of business needs. While these decisions were being made, and in the time since then, usually other ideas and alternatives have been taken into consideration. It's very rare that important business decisions are made arbitrarily.

After the investment of all the time and energy to get things up and going, you don't necessarily want to abandon them and go in another direction without a lot of careful consideration. When new ideas are offered as a crisis, and in the midst of a group rebellion, generally not all the variables have been considered. This is especially true when passion and emotion get mixed in with the arguments.

Although it's easy to get stuck in a rut doing the same thing over and over, don't fall into the trap that you have to make a change to things just because you're faced with a group that demands it.

What to do when confronted by an angry mob

Chances are there won't be people standing at your office door with torches and pitchforks, but resisting change in the face of a group is difficult. With some carefully considered strategies you can deflect the calls for change or at least harness them to your benefit.

Crack down

This is a strategy that works only in tightly controlled organizations. Employing it can lead to backlash and disrupt employee morale. You certainly don't want to try it in a situation where you don't have the final say or have power to back up your refusal.

With this strategy you're employing a flat out "No!" to whatever change is being offered. You may or may not justify your decision by pointing out precedent and relevant policy and procedure. In any case, the issue isn't up for debate. And you're quite clear in saying so.

Embrace and extend

This strategy was made famous by Bill Gates. Often when faced with new technologies or standards that threatened Microsoft's dominance, it would first embrace the change and get behind it. Then Microsoft would move to "extend" the technology by adding enough proprietary elements to it, so it gained an advantage. Think Internet Explorer after Microsoft was confronted with the Internet in the late 90s.

When employing this strategy, you acknowledge the basis for the need for change. You may also acknowledge some of the solutions offered. But, once you do that, you "extend" the change. Ideally, you'll co-opt it enough to lessen the impact of it to the organization or enough to claim it as your own.

Redirect and refocus

This strategy is popular for anyone who has a toddler who likes to get into trouble. It's equally effective with employees and coworkers.

With this strategy, you basically ignore the changes offered by the group and try to change the debate. You take the energy and passion of the group and refocus it in other areas. For example, if a group really wants to start deploying Macs in the business over Windows, you can attempt to redirect the focus of the group into a general discussion of other alternatives as well, such as Linux, thin clients, and so on. Eventually, the passion may dwindle out or the group can be channeled to affect change other than what they initially intended.

Defer it

With this strategy, you're attempting to take advantage of the limited attention span that people sometimes have. Rather than just flat out saying "No," you instead choose to "study" the proposal and give it "serious consideration." As you know, this takes time — sometimes a lot of time.

The additional time can be your friend for several reasons:

  • The agents of change may lose interest.
  • New technologies may come along that make the point moot.
  • Other viable alternatives or defendable reasons to reject the change might surface.

Demagogue it

This is a strategy to employ only when you know that the change is needed and that the movement is sure to succeed. Here you're not blocking the call for change at all. You're trying to get out in front of the change and, if necessary, become its leading proponent. At this point, you're basically acknowledging that resistance is futile and you want to come out as good as possible whenever everything's said and done.

The bottom line for IT leaders

If implementing change is hard, preventing change can be even harder. Being an IT leader means doing both. Preventing change is most difficult when you're faced with a group of people who feel that they have a better way. Assess the situation and react accordingly. Maybe they have a better idea, maybe they don't. Chances are you can't squash the rebellion, so figure out the best course of action and handle it appropriately so as to not burn bridges.

Don't forget — you are an IT leader, and as such you're paid to use your judgment, not just always go with the flow.

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