In my last blog, Getting Started with a Streamlining Process, I laid out a basic process of change from Making Streamlining Stick, PEAK Grantmaking’s guide to moving a streamlining effort forward in your organization. It’s a process that borrows from well-known change management literature, such as John Kotter’s work on leading change. The basic idea is solid – that if you clearly demonstrate need for change, build a sense of urgency, share a compelling vision, involve a team of stakeholders, and get input and feedback across the board, you’ll get the buy in and support that the effort needs to succeed. Rationality prevails, and the change is a snap!
And this would all be true, if it weren’t for the pesky reality of human nature.
Change efforts meet confusion and resistance, even when the change is sensible and desired. Sometimes a change sounds good in theory, but in practice requires giving up comfortable ways of doing things, working with new people, and learning new skills. Sometimes a change requires you to give up a requirement or activity that you enjoy – or something that makes you feel valued or powerful, even if it is clearly an outdated and unnecessary practice.
The Change Curve, often attributed to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s work, is widely used in business and change management. There are numerous versions of the change curve in existence but the basic principle is the same: people follow predictable patterns of psychological reactions to change over time. Our tendency as human beings is to feel overwhelmed and out of sorts at first when confronted with change that disrupts our usual flow. As Ann Salerno and Lillie Brock write in their great book, The Change Cycle, “Novelty and the perceived loss of control engage the survival part of the brain, the one where fear (and friends angst and concern) resides.” With the right communication, training, and support, most folks eventually adapt and commit to new ways, but it can be a bumpy journey.
When you are making a change to your grantmaking practices, you might be surprised by the resistance from your colleagues who are going through the valley in the change curve. Resistance can look like questioning the whole premise (wait, why do we need to change grants management systems again? I thought our old one worked just fine…), confusion (I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now that we aren’t requiring quarterly reports), pessimism (We’ve tried to fix this before. It didn’t work then and it won’t work now), and quiet – or loud – avoidance (I’m just going to quietly keep doing it the old way, because this new way won’t work).
While it’s easy to think that people resist change out of stubbornness or sheer lack of vision, it is important to recognize that nearly everyone goes through some version of this journey – and it will be faster or slower depending on many factors.
- Individual personality – Some people are change-lovers who live comfortably with ambiguity and tend to welcome the next thing, whatever it may be. Others crave routine and feel unsettled when they aren’t sure exactly what will happen next. These different temperaments may need a different level of support as they travel through the change process.
- The stakes – Any given change will affect people differently depending on where they sit and how much their day-to-day work and life will change. This can be hard to predict, because what seems like a small modification might have big implications for a colleague. For example, a simplified application process and clear set of FAQs may mean that a grants manager receives fewer calls from confused grantseekers. That’s good, right? But those conversations may be his primary interaction with your partner organizations, and losing that connection may mean that he no longer has that regular opportunity to be a valuable problem-solver for these organizations –that’s not going to feel good! Understanding the stakes can help you have meaningful conversations about change, acknowledge loss, and find new ways to tap colleagues passions and skills.
- Involvement and agency – Almost no one enjoys change that is foisted upon them. Generally, if you’re more involved with planning the change and making it happen, you feel better about it. First, you know more about it and second you have agency because you’ve been driving it. This is part of the rationale for making sure that the most affected stakeholders have a seat at the table when change is contemplated. The other, bigger reason to engage stakeholders, of course, is that those closest to the work and the problem are the ones with the best knowledge of how to fix it. The mantra nothing about us without us is a good one to chant to yourself.
- Communication – When you are making change, there’s no such thing as too much communication. Talk about the need for change, talk about the vision and plan, and talk about what the changes will look like. If you don’t know exactly, talk about how you will get to more clarity. Some organizations make the mistake of not wanting to share process information that might then change. But most people would rather be up-to-date on how a change is progressing than wait for a big reveal when everything is final.
- Support – A successful change effort always requires support from at least one well-placed organizational champion who can ensure the authority to make things happen. Once the change is underway, folks will need training so that they can feel confident in their jobs. Keep in mind that people may not ask for this support, because they may feel that it reflects poorly on them to admit that they don’t know what to do. For example, if you’ve always used a budget template, but are now accepting grantees’ financial information in their own formats, staff will probably need training on how to read a variety of budgets, what types of red flags to look for, and what your organization particularly cares about in a budget.
When you embark on a streamlining effort, it makes sense to plan for resistance so that it doesn’t surprise you. Think about who to engage up front, what the likely fears and losses will be, how and when you’ll communicate, and the support and training you will offer.
Readings on Change and Resistance
So much has been written on this topic that it can be hard to know where to start. If you’d like to learn more, try these resources:
- Leading Change by John Kotter
- Managing Transitions by William Bridges and Susan Bridges
- The Change Cycle: How People Can Survive and Thrive in Organizational Change by Ann Salerno & Lillie Brock
Do you have a story about a change process that encountered resistance? Share it with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.