CXO

John Edwards was right -- Expect to be attacked when implementing change

Some people don't deal well with change. They may just grumble, but other times they'll go into full attack mode - challenging you personally as well as your ideas. Here are some strategies you can use to counteract these attacks.

Some people don't deal well with change. They may just grumble, but other times they'll go into full attack mode — challenging you personally as well as your ideas. Here are some strategies you can use to counteract these attacks.

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Often unless people are implementing their own ideas, or you've done an excellent sales job in advance with your ideas, they're rarely excited about change. Some people just deal with it and go with the flow. Others grumble and complain but then wind up adjusting as well. The ones you have to worry about it are those who resist at all costs.

This third group obviously presents the most problems. They may attempt to torpedo your project. They'll take pot shots at your technology choices. They may even make personal attacks both to your face and behind your back.

The wisdom of John Edwards

Back during the Democratic presidential primaries, the term "change" got kicked around quite a bit. In the midst of the New Hampshire debate, John Edwards summed up the concept I'm talking about here when he double-teamed Hillary Clinton with Barack Obama:

Any time you speak out powerfully for change,

the forces of status quo attack.

Politicians know all too well the art of attack. Unfortunately, it's also an art we have to understand as IT professionals when we're trying to implement change of our own. It's not necessary to know how to craft the attacks, but you need a strategy to deal with attacks when they come.

Angles of attack

There are different methods that the forces of status quo will use to attack your project. The most common angles of attack are:

  • Attack the need for the project
  • Attack the cost of the project
  • Attack the technical solution
  • Attack the implementer

Build a business case

The first two lines of attack are probably the easiest to defend against. Doing so isn't a lot of fun however. This is where the "business case" comes in. Building a business case is probably one of the most tedious tasks that we have to do as IT leaders.

The benefit is clear: Once you've built an iron-clad business case and had it approved, the first two lines of attack fade away. The best the forces of status quo can do is to challenge the assumptions that you're using in the business case. Financial and needs assessments can be difficult to challenge though. This is especially true if you've attempted to address these possible questions in the case itself.

Attacking the technology

It's kind of like the old cliche': If you ask 100 IT pros how to hook up a network you'll get 100 different answers. For almost every problem we face, there are multiple correct solutions. This is good because it gives us the flexibility to do the job the way we like and still get it done. On the flip side, however, there are an infinite number of ways to do things wrong.

Nontechnical folk don't care HOW we do it, so long as it gets done. They don't know the difference between the dozens of right ways and hundreds of wrong ones either. That ignorance is the foothold the forces of status quo take advantage of.

Say, for example, that accounting needs some additional servers set up for file storage. You decide it's a good idea to take the opportunity to get some new equipment and consolidate the servers under Windows Server 2008 and do so with virtualization. The forces of status quo are happily running NetWare and immediately question the expense of Windows Server 2008 and the stability of multiple virtual sessions. The controller's eyes glaze over when you say the word "virtualization."

Your business case can address some of these issues in advance. However, it's hard to anticipate in a document like a business case what the attack alternative is going to be.  Plus, you may not want to go into that much technical detail about the tactics of the solution in the business-case document.

The best way to deal with attacks on the technology is by completely understanding what it is you're proposing as well as what the alternatives are. This may seem obvious, but often, like the forces of status quo, we sometimes just go with what we know. Linux people will suggest Linux solutions, Mac fanboys will go the Apple route, and so on. Being confident in your solution and being able to debate the merits of it and alternatives calmly and knowledgeably will go a long way.

The personal attack

Personal attacks can come two ways and are hard to deal with. Some people may call you out to your face and in a group setting. Such boldness and effrontery can easily throw you off your balance. The knee-jerk reaction is to counterattack, but that's usually what the person is looking to do anyway. Try to stay calm and stick to the facts of your proposal. If possible, ignore the attack or deflect it without directly attacking the attacker.

The silent backstabber is more of a problem. You may not know this is happening until it's too late. Your only hope to defend against this is the personal relationships you've built previously with coworkers. If the people around you know you well enough, they'll know better than to believe the bitter whisperings of a disgruntled coworker.

There are more ways to handle disagreements with coworkers in our 10 Things blog.

The bottom line for IT leaders

When implementing change, you're bound to face resistance. Most of the time it will be professional and aboveboard. Occasionally, it won't be. You need a strategy to deal with the forces of status quo when they go on attack. Remember to stay calm and refocus the attention on the reasons why the change is important. Address, deflect, or ignore the charges as appropriate. When it's clear that what you want to do has benefits for the organization, you stand a better chance of surviving the personal attacks.

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