“Deep and sustainable change…requires changes in behavior among those who do not welcome the change.”
– Douglas B. Reeves
Addressing stakeholder resistance to a new initiative can be daunting and provoke feelings of anxiety in those trying to implement change. That said, organizations and leaders can use a few straightforward strategies to build support and tackle barriers to change for their large-scale initiatives. I have outlined simple but critical steps organizations can take to create buy-in, facilitate change, and complete their initiatives.
Step 1: Assess what has or has not worked in the past and respond to stakeholders’ concerns
Many organizations jump straight into project work, defining scope, and identifying intended outcomes before they have unpacked the context of previous efforts that could affect the success of their initiative. Oftentimes, this ends up duplicating or complicating ongoing work. As a first step, organizations should assess the problems they are facing and their associated root causes, map out the research and data they have on an issue of interest, and then determine the high-level activities necessary to advance the work. Taking this step enables organizations and leaders to start a project or initiative in ways that honor their stakeholders’ prior experiences and respond to their concerns.
Step 2: Create opportunities for stakeholders to provide input and co-design the work
In many cases, stakeholder resistance to a new initiative can be a by-product of previous experiences where they were disconnected or marginalized from a process that directly impacted them. One strategy for overcoming these previous negative experiences is to provide stakeholders with a seat at the table (i.e., an opportunity to drive, inform, or consult on the project work). Not only does this allow organizations to respond to their stakeholders’ lived experiences in an ongoing way, but it also provides multiple opportunities to bring stakeholders—who could determine the success of a project—along as they work to row in the same direction (i.e., established shared understanding, goals, and strategies).
Step 3: Focus stakeholders’ concerns on factors within their locus of control
The problems that organizations are facing are typically complex and multi-faceted. Due to this, organizations should take steps to ensure that their project work isn’t derailed by stakeholder concerns about factors outside of their locus of control. By narrowing the focus, organizations can limit the amount of time and effort spent on conversations or strategies where action is not possible. It is important to note that this is an art, not a science, and can take the form of a balancing act between not completely disregarding stakeholders’ perspectives and focusing their attention on the addressable root causes of a particular issue.
Step 4: Create use cases to measure success and monitor project outcomes
Even if organizations follow the steps above with absolute fidelity, some stakeholders may still be unaware or feel disconnected from the organization’s initiative. To address this, organizations can use short-term use cases to measure indicators of success, monitor implementation, and communicate about the intended outcomes of an initiative. Short-term use cases allow organizations to check their understanding and show value to impacted stakeholders before project implementation at scale. This strategy can take the form of implementation monitoring and help prevent problems that could derail successful project implementation in the long term.