The Utility of Resistance

Since man began to sail the open seas, sailors have used a very simple device to determine how to take maximum advantage of the wind.  Pieces of ribbon or yarn attached to the main mast and to the sides of the jib tell a sailor when the wind is up and how to trim the sails to use the wind effectively to make the best headway.  These pieces of ribbon or yarn (three red strips in the photo below) are called a telltale and telltales are one of a sailor’s best friends.

Sailing image

When it comes to making headway in organization change, leaders, managers, and change practitioners also have a telltale.  It’s called resistance.  However, resistance is rarely regarded as anyone’s best friend.  To the contrary, resistance is usually regarded as something to be “overcome,” “managed,” “mitigated,” “confronted,” or otherwise vanquished.

What if we reframed resistance and approached it differently?

Ultimately, we do want resistance to fade into the background and be replaced by commitment to the change. However, in the early going and at other critical points, we want to consider the expression of resistance as a diagnostic telltale. We want to use the expression of resistance to guide us to understand its root causes, where it is occurring, and how to approach the change work needed to address it. To use the sailing metaphor, understand how to “trim the sails” to make the best headway.

Hold on to the metaphor for a moment and let’s get concrete with an example of using resistance to help determine what, where, and how to help a change move forward.

A large company was implementing enterprise information system management across the entire organization. As happens commonly in many large organizations, differences by function in IT applications, data bases, reporting requirements, policies, and special, home-grown IT solutions, etc. eventually lead to an electronic Tower of Babel. As a result, people then must resort to spreadsheets and other database tools to make sense of information across the enterprise. Enterprise information systems (EI) improve integration and interoperability across business units and processes.

A change effort to move the company from its current, disjointed information state to enterprise information was launched. Considerable upfront, organization wide effort went into defining and systemizing information governance and stewardship, policies and guidelines, process, structure, and quality management. After months of effort to communicate and socialize the change, a Change Team was appointed by the Steering Committee to lead implementation. It was at that point that forceful resistance became evident, and the entire effort slowed to a halt.

The Steering Committee and the Change Team were baffled.  They had carefully involved stakeholders from across the organization in defining and structuring the EI system and had spent considerable time and effort communicating and socializing the change. But now, as the roll out was underway, they were facing strong resistance, implementation was stuck, and they didn’t know what to do next.  To their credit, recognizing that they didn’t know what they didn’t know, they wisely decided to step back and become better informed. How could they discover what such forceful resistance was about and where was it occurring?

After careful deliberation, they decided to develop and conduct a survey to learn about peoples’ beliefs and attitudes about enterprise information.  As it turned out, it was the best step they could have taken.

Survey data yielded two areas of results that were particularly informative.  In a series of questions about the barriers to information becoming an enterprise resource and to sharing information across departments, some very interesting item correlations emerged.

  • Management attitudes against enterprise information (EI), cultural norms against EI, and efforts to discourage interoperability were highly positively correlated with each other and with business unit meaning that managers in some business units were actively discouraging the EI change.
  • Management support for EI and reinforcement of EI through mechanisms like performance review and rewards and recognition were negatively correlated to management attitudemeaning that as managers’ attitudes toward EI decreased so did support for and reinforcement of EI.

The change team now understood that managers in some business units were the source of resistance.  However, they didn’t know where the problem existed or the specific issues that were driving the attitudes.  Results from a companion section of the survey helped to answer those questions.

A series of statements asked respondents to judge the degree to which information system attributes such as trustworthiness of the data, access speed, ease of use, quality of the data, need for confidentiality, etc. were:

  • Critically important
  • Very important
  • Important
  • Not at all important

To make the analysis stand out as clearly as possible, a scoring convention was used to raise the threshold for identifying criticality of an issue.  60% of respondents needed to respond “very important” or “critically important” to an issue for it to reach the threshold.

By constructing a table of business units and their responses to the items about important information systems attributes, a very interesting picture emerged.  For 6 of 12 business units, more than 50% of the named attributes met or exceeded the threshold. For the other 6 business units, more than 50% of respondents indicated “not at all important” to all of the attributes.

Combining the two analyses, the Steering Committee and Change Team now knew the likely sources of management attitudes, cultural norms, and practices aimed at keeping information siloed. More importantly, they were also now acquainted with the concerns about the information systems attributes in these business units that were contributing to resistance. There was significant change work to do, but they were equipped with actionable information to work through these matters to move the change forward.

The next time you encounter resistance in your change effort, recognize what your reaction is.  Do you immediately want to stamp it out?  Eradicate it from the face of the earth with brute force?  Instead, treat it as a telltale. Step back, take a breath, and become… curious.  Your curiosity will pay dividends. You will learn a whole lot about what, where, and how to inform the change work you need to do.

For more information about resistance, how to assess it, and how to work with it, visit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *