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.