The Myth of Resistance to Change

“Why won’t they do what I want?”

“Why won’t they do what is best for them?”

“I can see how to solve this, why can’t they just try it?”


Down through millennia, these are the daily thoughts of people trying to change things.

All leaders experience what they think is “Resistance to Change”.

“It’s real!” I hear you shout, “I get it all the time.”

In my many years of experience, this so called resistance to change crumbles with a few simple questions.

If you are leading change and getting resistance, find a few of the most resistant people, take them aside and ask them the following:

1) “Are you happy with how things are (not regarding the change project, but the day-to-day situation)?”

I’ll lay down cold hard cash that the answer will be “No.”

Those who resist the most tend to be those who are the most passionate. They will always have something to say about the way things are.

Which begs the next question:

2) “What do you think should or could be different?”

The answer will come in the form of, “This… and that… and this…” And so on. Again, they know what should be different but if they are resisting, it’s likely that no one has asked them before.

Follow this with:

3) “Okay, I hear that. If we worked together on ‘this and that and this’ do you think you could help?”

I’d give reasonable odds on a “Yes” to at least one of the options.

Thus you have proven that the resisters are not resisting change, they are just resisting your change.


There is no resistance to change, just resistance to bad change, done-to change, imposed change, change they did five years ago, change that starts before the last changes have been implemented, change that is rushed, change that is underfunded, change that doesn’t involve the staff or the public, change that is just plain dumb.

You are starting to unlock their need for joy in public service. It was always in there, but at times it leaks out as resistance. Sometimes people feel that the best thing to do is to block, delay or derail the change. But they won’t do that when they are involved in the change and see it as improving the system to help people.

Next time you encounter resistance to change, try these questions and see if you can peel back that resistance.

However, before you do, pause, and ensure that you are actually going to listen to the answers. For the one thing worse that not listening to people, is asking them and then only pretending to listen.

Transformational Change is Self-Boiling Water

We do improvement by programmes. Change happens in projects. We ask for innovation at one-off events. We expect people to be adaptive and insightful every few months or years when we tell them to.

And it doesn’t work.

The pace of change is too slow and any innovation is patchy and  short-lived.

Boiling a Pan of Water

Let’s say our organisation is a pan of water and transformational change happens when the water boils.

Here’s how we try to boil the water.

We take a thimble full of water out of the pan – take people out of the work and put them on a project team. Then we boil the thimble full of water and pour it back in the pan.

We can heat thimbles of water as fast as we like. We can use a few more thimbles. But the pan of water will not boil.

Moreover, once back in the pan, the hot water from the thimbles dissipates and quickly cools down.

So how do you boil a pan of water?

Turn on the gas under the pan.

The gas is senior management energy, focus, commitment and support.

But if you watch a pan of water, even with the gas turned right up, for a while it will seem that nothing is happening. Then, slowly, small bubbles will form on the bottom of the pan. Those bubbles will start to jiggle and in a little while, they rise up and join together to make bigger bubbles.

The bubbles are change ideas hatching, joining and rising up. At first they are small ones, then medium, then they combine to make big bubbles bursting on the surface.

Not too long now until you get the really big bubbles – fundamental change – and the pan of water is boiling.

Latent Energy

Here is the best part. In an important way, a pan of water is not like an organisation, because water molecules are passive. To boil the water all the energy has to come from outside the system – turning on the gas. But people in an organisation can generate energy from inside themselves. They have intrinsic motivation help others, contribute to society, do a good job, solve problems and work in teams. They want to experience joy in public service.

If we can release the energy that lies latent in all our people, then the water will boil itself.

Transformational change is self-boiling water.

However, we can never turn off the gas – management energy and support – otherwise the pan will go cold. Even with the intrinsic energy of people in an organisation, you will still always need senior focus on maintaining the behaviours of improvement, adaptation and innovation.

No More Improvement Projects

If we want transformational change, we have to stop hoping that projects will spread the behaviours that we want across the organisation. It just doesn’t happen. We have to get every person, in every team, having change ideas, testing them, learning, and putting the ideas into practice. We must start with small ideas and give people the experience of running the ideas through a change cycle before they move onto bigger and deeper ideas.

When everyone is doing change at the same time, starting small, then you don’t need to spread it, you just need to just build it up.

Joy in Public Service Must Be Bull*&%!

What’s all this “Joy in Public Service” stuff? Either it’s motherhood and apple pie or it’s cloud cuckoo land. It must be rubbish if it’s anything to do with something like “joy”.

What even is joy?

I get it. I’m a straight-up curmudgeon about these things too. I’ve read a couple of books about happiness and I can’t say I’ve learned anything except that no one can really define it and you can’t get it by chasing it directly. However, happiness exists, for some people, some of the time.

My thesis about Joy in Public Service is not that it is easy, definitely not, not that it is everywhere, certainly not. But I think that delivering and receiving public services is an opportunity to feel and share true joy. The joy of helping and being helped. The joy of being part of something meaningful and that has purpose. The joy of working together, not just in teams, but also those who deliver services with those who benefit from them.

Delivering services is tough. It is complex. It is frustrating. So why are we talking about joy? It’s hard enough to do the job as it is without bringing silly abstract happy-clappy concepts like this into it. Isn’t it? And what would we do about it anyway?

Public services have lost their way. They are buffeted by falling budgets, rising demand, frustrating bureaucracy, constraining rules, labyrinthine processes, vacillating politicians and a fickle public. Technology is running ahead while in the public sector is still stuck in the dark ages. Thinking about leadership and organisational excellence hasn’t changed much in 50 years, yet both are woeful or completely missing in the public sector. There are many systems of improvement that can successfully be applied and yet often the public sector stumbles on, using none of these techniques.

Yet this situation is not for the want of dedicated, intelligent or hard working people. Everyone I meet in the public sector wants things to be different and better. However, there is a common perception that there are too many barriers to be overcome. Some folk have given up. Even the most hopeful are resigned to being “realistic”.

Of course there are pockets of improvement, islands of excellence. But notice that the same examples come up again and again because there are so few to point to. I talked to a Chief Executive at a London Local Authority and he was very proud of the changes made in one of his departments. As we talked about things that had or could happen, he kept coming back to the one group as an example of all sorts of things. But that was the only place. Excellence is hard to spread.

We need a rallying cry, a trusted guide, a reason to press on to do the things that collectively have languished. My suggestion is: “joy”. The reasons for this choice is that the pursuit of joy will also produce all the other things that we need in the public sector.

The Elements of Joy

The requirement for joy in public services are:

  • Meaning and purpose
  • Understanding the true need of the public
  • Working with the public as equals
  • Working as a team
  • Continual improvement — “I did a good job today and tomorrow will be better still.”
  • Improving whole systems
  • Autonomy, responsibility, trust and mastery in work
  • Embracing complexity
  • Leadership
  • Permission to try, fail and learn and adapt

If we can create the environment for these things, then joy will emerge.

But guess what, those things are needed, explicitly or implicitly, to make best use of tight budgets, improve services and meet the expanding demands.

So using Joy in Public Service as a North Star not only brings us a little closer to it but has the side effect of other necessary outcomes too.

The important thing to know is that cutting budgets only stores up trouble for other parts of the system or for the future. Only improving services will truly cut cost.

Only navigating using Joy will keep us on the right path.

Public Service Brings Joy

Public Service should be a joy. A joy for those who receive services and those who benefit, directly or indirectly. A joy for those who deliver and manage services. A joy for those decide what public services should be. Even a joy for those who pay for them.

There is a lot that could be improved about all public services, but here I want to concentrate on the joy they bring.

Serving others is a deep-seated and when it is done right can be a great source of fulfilment and satisfaction. Working hard, doing good meaningful work that helps others, working in a team to improve and solve problems. Who wouldn’t find joy in that?

For those who receive services that have a human touch, that recognise individual and family circumstances and met fundamental needs, public services can also be a joy. When you are in need of guidance, practical help, medical treatment, expertise support and yes, sometimes money, public services can be there to help. Public services can keep your head above water — physically, mentally, financially, practically. Services can point you in the right direction. They can lift you up to give you the opportunity to be your best self.

Many public services are almost invisible and yet our society would collapse without them. The people who work there know that what they are doing is essential and fundamental to our way of life.

All this brings joy.

And it gives me joy as I help those who create joy through the work they do.