Guerrilla War With The Resistance: How to Introduce Change

Culture is difficult to change. While this is not news, it is something that we always have to keep in mind. This refers as much to organizational- as it does to national culture.

In driving change, organizational culture can be a “problem” Let’s say you want to change the way your call-center works. You think it is time your staff act like human beings again, not like robots following scripts. For many years the employee manual has been the bible of your staff, but now you’re telling them to just throw it away. Part of your new vision is to “always place the customer as number one”, so you are telling your staff that they should always provide the best service possible. Employees are now flexible in handling customer requests and they can make decisions themselves on how to handle complaints.

Two years later one of your staff members gets a call from an angry customer. He has a problem with one of your products. The first thing your employee asks himself is: “what did the manual say about this?”.

You have already provided them with training, gave many speeches, instructed their supervisors to remind them constantly that they now have the authority to decide what is best for your customers, but nothing much has changed. Well, actually there used to be some changes, but they are already history. After you introduced the new vision, many of your employees were excited. They tried to change, it just didn’t work.

What went wrong?


Well, what John P. Kotter would say is that “the core values of the organizational culture were in conflict with the change effort”. In the past the company acknowledged that it had to give customers some sort of service, so they had certain regulations like a 60 days money-back guarantee. When a customer called after that time-frame, the employee would simply say “well, then I can not help you” and that was the end of the issue. In other words: it was all about compliance. Employees knew that “the rules are number one”.

You probably think that the example is simplified and extreme.  That is true and done on purpose. In the example the core values of the past are the complete opposite of what the company tried to introduce. Such a change effort is doomed to failure. When a company introduces change, it first needs to identify the core values of the current organizational culture. After that it is possible for the change agent to develop a vision of the future which is grounded in these core values.

Of course at times there are core values which are simply outdated. They need to be changed. And yes, that is possible. But before you can try to change values, you need to change behavior. In this example there is an obvious solution to this problem. If employees still think that rules are number one, then simply change the rules. Make them way more flexible. Change the money-back guarantee from 60 days to unlimited time – give permission to return products without asking for the reason. That way employees still comply with the rules, but they are also able to adapt to the needs of the customers.

By making the rules more flexible, sooner or later the mindset of the employees will change as well. “Rules are flexible, the important thing is that you act according to larger goals – our vision” is what you need to communicate to your employees. Over time people will stop strictly complying with rules. They will follow the vision instead.

Before you attempt to change people’s values, the first step is always to change behavior. They will be reluctant at first, but over time the behavior will become the norm. The key is to constantly reinforce the behavior – communicate over and over again that this is the new way of doing things, make sure that top management acts as a role model and reward behavior that is consistent with the new vision. Over time this new vision will replace old values. And don’t forget: this is a process that takes years.

You will need to create some short-time benefits through the changes you implement, otherwise resistance will start to develop from many sides. You will end up fighting a guerrilla war. We all heard about these cases where a few men with guns kept a whole army at bay. They have a few small wins and, through that, kill the morale of the enemy. In the same way a few people who oppose the change can slow down the change process and with that kill the enthusiasm of your colleagues. Sooner or later you regress to the the old ways of doing things and…. well….that’s it. No more change.

If you want to learn more about change, I recommend reading John P. Kotter’s “Leading Change“.

How about you guys? Have you ever tried to introduce change in your organization? What challenges did you face? Did you manage to overcome them? If yes, how? If no, what were the problems? I’d love to hear from you!




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