Overcome the resistance to change with a grassroots rebellion

What do Prohibition, women's suffrage, gay rights, and PCs in business all have in common? They all started out as grassroots rebellions which lead to major changes in business and society. You can do the same thing.

What do Prohibition, women's suffrage, gay rights, and PCs in business all have in common? They all started out as grassroots rebellions that led to major changes in business and society. You can do the same thing.


The American Revolution. Prohibition. Abolition. Voting rights for women. Civil rights. Gay rights. Child labor laws. Microcomputers in business. Local area networks. Wireless networking. Macintoshes in the office. Linux in the server room.

What do all these things have in common? They were all revolutionary things that started at the grassroots levels. By and large these disruptive occurrences weren't the result of things that happened due to people who were ultimate decision makers or held power. Instead, they began as grassroots rebellions. They were ideas that took hold at the lowest levels, gathering up key influencers and a vocal minority of similar thinkers who ultimately led to major change.

Even though you're an IT leader, it doesn't necessarily mean that you have the power to implement the decisions and changes that you want to make happen. In that case, sometimes it's good to have some allies.

A few examples

Take the PC and microcomputers in business as an example. In the late 70s, when microcomputers first hit the scene, they were dismissed by many IT professionals as being nothing more than toys. Real computing was done on real computers. Real computers were big machines ensconced in air-conditioned glass houses that mere mortals couldn't access. To get work done, you had to go through system programmers, computer operators, and several layers of MIS red tape.

The first Apple II and TRS-80 computers that people bought as hobby machines were definitely underpowered compared to the machines that were sitting in the MIS department. However, once programs like VisiCalc appeared, the machines displayed enough power to be useful. What was more attractive was the fact that the microcomputers were more flexible and more accessible than the computing power controlled by the MIS folks.

One by one, these machines started sneaking into the offices of businesspeople. They started off being personal machines that followed their owners into the workplace. Over time, workers found ways to expense computers out of their own budgets, bypassing the MIS department. Eventually enough of the machines were in place that MIS departments were forced to accommodate them.

Other technologies have followed the same basic path to acceptance. Even though IT likes to standardize on equipment to get better pricing and to make support easier, Macs keep creeping back into the office. In the 80s and 90s, most companies had a handful of them pop up here and there under the radar. Today the Mac is becoming more and more common, even becoming standard issue.

Likewise, wireless networking became popular in many businesses because it snuck in the back door. Users who wanted networking flexibility that IT refused to grant (often for good reason) brought in their own wireless access points and put them on the network. Eventually, IT had to respond by deploying wireless networks of its own.

Starting the revolution

Fomenting a grassroots movement can be a good strategic move to make when you want to get something done, but you may face resistance from others in the organization. Sometimes those higher up in an organization are hesitant to implement the plans. It's equally possible that other stakeholders at your same level may block your plans. In either case, having some allies in the organization can come in handy.

Step 1: Pick your allies

One way to start the revolution is to identify members of the organization who have influence in their own areas and to get them on board. They don't necessarily have to be in positions of power, but just coworkers whose opinions are trusted and respected by others. Discuss with them the key points of your plan, with special attention about how it will benefit them directly. This makes it more likely they'll join your revolution.

You don't need a massive group to get things started. Many movements start off very small, but with an active, vocal, and noticeable group. Just make sure you pick the right allies along the way.

Step 2: Choose a plan of action 

To begin the revolution, a good method to use is starting a pilot program. That way you can test your plans out in the open. The stakeholders are visible and gain the prestige of participation. As you modify the plan to meet the users' needs based on the inputs during the pilot program, you wind up with even stronger allies who'll go to bat for you when needed.

You can also go the other route, following the path of the PC and wireless networks. In that case, you're a little more subversive — bringing technology and change in under the radar until there's too much change to ignore. Here you must be careful because you're liable to face a bigger backlash than through the building of a movement out in the open.

Step 3: Consider stepping back

Once things get going, you may not necessarily want to make yourself the "leader" of the revolution and the change. Although grassroots movements will coalesce around a leader over time, initially it's the movement itself that gets things going. Don't forget that there was a movement afoot to get women the vote before Susan B. Anthony, and that civil rights was an issue before Martin Luther King Jr. Somewhere someone got the ball rolling, but they weren't the identified as the ultimate leader.

For that matter, you may not even want to be the recognized leader of the change. Although recognition is nice, it's possible that someone else in the group you've organized is in a better position to break the logjam you faced to begin with. Your ultimate goal, of course, is to get your plan in place, not necessarily garner the glory for it.

Step 4: Push for change together

Once the revolutionaries are all together, you can't go storming the bastille of the CEO's office. Instead, you can start using other tactics of applying pressure to those that are blocking the change. You can try setting the terms of the debate or using your group to affect incremental change among other things. In any case, with the group behind you, you have more influence and results to show than you otherwise would. The sheer weight of the group can overcome objections you may face.

The bottom line for IT leaders

Making change happen is almost never an easy thing. Even if you're in a decision-making position, you can face resistance to the plans and technologies you want to introduce. That's when it helps to have some friends. Identify and gather a group of people together who can help you affect the change you want to implement. Working together, you might be able to create a grassroots rebellion against those who are resistant to the change you're trying to implement.

Viva la revolucion!

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