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  • Graham Leary

Change Management – How to avoid being “swallowed” by resistance

Ideas and initiatives are materialized once implemented. Why do we face barriers when driving change initiatives and, how can we improve our chances of delivering successful outcomes?

Graham Leary ∙ July 2021

If you have spent part of your career in a profession that has a human behavioral aspect to it, and assuming you’ve appropriately “pushed the envelope” in the organizations you have supported - you’ve likely had numerous experiences relating to driving change. From some joyous successes to resounding failures, and everything in between. As we experience from our own self-awareness, for most human beings, we do not like experiencing significant change. This in itself is the first barrier to overcome when embarking on a change initiative. Inherently you’re stepping into another individual’s “harmonic balance”, that they have toiled through their professional career and personal life to create. Change can make us feel “temporarily incompetent”. The reality is, significant change is extremely difficult to accomplish, and even when we think we may be driving change it may not be impactful or lasting.

Understanding culture is a major factor in driving change

In Edgar Schein’s book, Organizational Culture & Leadership he summarizes culture in a three-layer pyramid. He refers to the foundational level as an organization’s “basic assumptions”, the inherent DNA of an organization, in itself, not simple to analyze and accurately access. The two pyramid layers above are the weaker aspects of culture, “espoused values” and “artifacts”. Espoused values and artifacts alone, rarely drive lasting change. However, they’re often where we play because they are relatively easier to grasp. For example, let’s say you are leading a corporate-wide energy usage reduction initiative. The team believes a successful program should focus on “getting the message out”. As part of the new program, the team decides to produce, and within various facility locations, place energy conservation banners and stickers e.g., “last out lights off”. An example of an artifact. No downside, but in itself unlikely to drive lasting behavioral change without first assessing the deeper requirements, behaviors, and motivations of the current energy users. A leadership team decides it wants to improve company morale and announces a new initiative to become “the best place to work”, an example of an espoused value. A great initiative, however unlikely to drive lasting change in itself without first comprehensively understanding the company’s underlying culture.

Culture is very key to driving change. Resistance patterns are often deeply embedded. Without understanding culture, it is difficult to develop strategies to manage resistance. Picture a situation where you are hiring for a role and have set up five interviews for your final candidate. At the end of the interview, when asked if they have any questions, the candidate asks each interviewer to describe in their own words the company culture. What do you think their responses would be? It’s quite likely each interviewer will have their own very different view, and that they’ll likely focus on various company espoused values.


Schein’s model serves as a useful reference when undertaking new change initiatives.


Learnings from an unsuccessful change initiative

A large corporation agreed it needed a supply chain strategy. The consensus was formed over the preceding six months following discussions between various functions and high-level inputs from outside resources. That was the easy part. How to move it forward became the bottleneck. As key stakeholders started to realize that a supply chain strategy could impact them directly, or they saw it as an opportunity to foster power, they became more involved. Two functions bought potential supply chain consultants to the table. Agreement on which one to use was not reached, so it was decided to use both. Several functions saw it as an opportunity to drive an agenda and over the ensuing months, various hands came to the top of the steering wheel. For example, the I.T department saw the initiative as a vehicle to drive technology investments. At one point, when the initiative was floundering, the Marketing head took a “Switzerland” approach, stepped in, and took the lead. That didn’t last very long. Although over two years there was significant dialogue, education, and learnings (a positive outcome), in the end, the initiative did not gain traction towards improving economics or, customer service.

What were the key learnings?

  • The initiative was far too ambitious and the organization was not mature enough to tackle it

  • There was a neutral mandate from the very top. An interest and willingness to learn, but not a clear “burning platform” that included a mandate with high-level, time-bound, deliverables e.g., I want $200M savings by a given date

  • There was not a clear understanding of what the “problem was that was trying be solved”. What was the ultimate objective and how was it tied to the customer? In part, related to the first point about scope being too ambitious

  • The overall corporate strategy was immature, evolving, and in itself did not create a foundation to connect a supporting supply chain strategy back to

  • The initiative lacked a clear owner, project team, and steering committee

  • Other factors such as internal politics were a factor. To an extent, this will commonly be prevalent in any major change initiative


A model for Change Management

Our Change Management Model© provides a framework when embarking on a new change initiative. Think of it as a checklist of questions to ask yourself, your leadership, and the project team. Even if you can accomplish 1-2 areas from the model it will increase the probability of a successful outcome. There are easier high-impact areas to implement e.g., providing consistent communication updates. Other critical areas, can be more challenging and stressful such as, assessing the appetite for change upfront and, ensuring stakeholder buy-in. But even if you have a straightforward sit-down with a few key stakeholders this is likely to be beneficial to the initiative in, the long run.



Change Management is not a widely discussed topic however, as we grow our careers, support our organizations and communities, learning change management is a key aspect of leadership. Keep an open mind, experiment with it, utilize the change management model, and be willing to accept some failures on your journey.

Graham Leary is the Owner/President of James Alistair – a procurement and strategic sourcing consulting firm.


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