Change: beyond project management strategy

Catherine Smithson
August 23, 2011

Research in neuroscience now reveals that our brains are designed to seek a balanced state. Safety and security are primary needs and the brain is at its best when relaxed, with just enough arousal to perform well, without too much stress.

When something changes, the brain records an error and goes on high alert. Since the brain tends to err on the side of caution or negativity, it’s likely that the first response will be a threat response and resistance until that response can be replaced. This may come in the form of memories of previous experiences where the outcome was okay.

Unfortunately, change in organisations often brings memories of previous changes where things didn’t go well and the employees are bracing themselves for the next onslaught of pain. When change occurs in large organisations, we are dealing with many brains and so the effects of rumour, concerns and ‘here we go again’ may lead to signs of early project failure or, at best, a huge amount of resistance. Leaders often report that despite having a great project plan and change management strategy, their people just seem to resist the change.

One CEO said: “I just wish they’d speak up when we make the initial announcement. But they won’t say anything. They just sit there and then the rumours start after the announcement.”

How can leaders deal with this? Understanding that the initial silence may not mean acceptance is very important. People are processing what they are hearing and trying to understand how the change will affect their job and perhaps their home life. Leaders who recognise that this is a natural human reaction will give their people time to form their opinions and then keep having conversations using a variety of channels.

Lessons learnt from how some small businesses manage change may also give us some insight. When small businesses begin to plan a change most of, if not all, the employees are aware right from the start of the planning stage. They are usually included in the planning and implementation, so uncertainty is decreased. They can also ask questions and suggest ideas.

Many small business people will begin talking about future changes over Friday drinks or at a team lunch, so the threat is lessened and a team approach becomes the focus. It’s about what ‘we’ as a business are planning as opposed to the ‘us and them’ attitude we often see in larger organisations.

We are more likely to help people move to acceptance of the change if we remember the people side of change rather than by concentrating our efforts solely on project management strategies.

Author avatar
Catherine Smithson
Catherine Smithson is a leading facilitator, educator and consultant in change and leadership. She has 20 years’ experience as a senior manager and a consultant and has an in-depth understanding of best practices worldwide. She is the managing director of Being Human.
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