Artful Nudging: Ideas for Overcoming Resistance to Change

Principle #8: Don’t get stuck in “Because we’ve always done it this way.”

Much thanks to all those who commented and provided additions to my 10 Principles of Great Transit Planning post. 

One interesting response that came in via Linkedin was from Nick Danty, who is an Intern at San Francisco’s Recreation and Parks Department.  He referenced Principle #8–Don’t get stuck in “because we’ve always done it that way”–and provided the following comment and question:

Number 8 really hits home with me. Question: What do you do when your supervisor is resistant to change?

A great question and one that I thought I would answer here rather than via a LinkedIn comment.  I also want to note that there are reams of articles and books on this subject and I’m sure that others have better answers than me.  These are just my suggestions based on my own hard knocks evolution as transit planner, strategic planner and community volunteer.

Before you Begin, Get Your Story Straight Part 1: What’s Visible

Before you work with others to move forward on a change, you first need to think about and be able to present a really compelling rationale.  Those familiar with writing business cases are old hands at this, but in case you aren’t, here are some of the key questions you should be able to succinctly answer:

  • What is the problem or issue you are trying solve?  In other words, what’s the objective?
  • Evaluate status quo: What is the benefit to the system/organization to keeping things as they are?  What are the risks or negative impacts (cost, perception, resilience, etc.) of staying the same?
  • Evaluate the possible change: What is the benefit to the system/organization to change?  What are the risks or negative impacts and how might you mitigate them?
  • How do the change and status quo compare in addressing the problem or issue?  Is there a compelling difference?

Get Your Story Straight Part 2: The Dark Underbelly

The above questions are a great start, but what we did above was only look at half of the change equation.  Like viewing a duck, we’ve looked at the part above the waterline but we also need to examine the messy churning of legs that are hidden underneath.  That means getting a sense of personal interests, unspoken fears and how folks in your organization might be tying their sense of selves to the way things are.

You aren’t going to necessarily share these answers with others in a written summary, but your responses to these questions need to shape the “public” version of the solutions and mitigation strategies above.

  • What might your supervisor or organization fear about the change?  In other words, what are the unspoken risks they might see (job loss, loss of status, drain on personal time, lack of interest in learning new things) and how do you propose to mitigate them?
  • What are the assumptions about the change?  Is there wrong or missing information that needs correcting?  Are there people that need to connect to each other?
  • How are people’s identities or senses of self tied to status quo?  How can you help them see themselves as part of your solution? If you look up “identity and organizational change,” you’ll find many articles based on the idea that people don’t fear organizational change per se, but rather they resist because they don’t yet understand what their new identity or sense of self might be as a result.  Part of making change happen isn’t just delivering a really solid “why” but also helping people understand “who” they are on the other side of the change (or convincing them that who they are actually isn’t going to be affected).

Get Your Story Straight Part 3: The More the Merrier

The questions above are presented as something you might undertake on your own.  I also want to underscore that your overall chance of success is going to be exponentially better if anyone potentially impacted by the change gets an opportunity to be part of developing the rationale and solution.

Three Potential Change Tactics

Once you’ve got your rationale straight, here’s my suggestion for potential tactics that can help build support for change.

  1. Channel the “Pilot Project” Approach. As I described in the original Principles of Transit Planning post, change is easier in bite size pieces and if it seems like there is opportunity to try it on before making it permanent or large scale.
    • Is there an opportunity to test out the changed approach on a smaller project that has less of a profile?
    • Is there a way for for you to lead this smaller test case as part of your employee development plan?  (Framing it that way can be a double win as it’s less risky for your supervisor since you’re “in charge,” plus they get to feel good about supporting their staff’s development).
  2. Find a Champion. Is there a system/organization or other person that your supervisor looks up to that is already doing things in another way with good results?  Are there others who support the change?
    • While being very careful not to seem like you are going above your supervisor or undermining them, pointing to these examples and harnessing these allies can be helpful.
    • Just remember that you’ll likely get better results if you frame the conversation as “Hey, look this place is doing this and this, how might we do that too?” NOT “Hey, look this place is doing this and this, I think we should that too.”  The first approach invites others to collaborate and adopt the idea as their own and will likely have a better chance of success, while the other just makes it seem all about you. (Questions starting with “How might we…?” are like the nifty secret throwing stars of change management ninja-dom….)
  3. Seize a Crisis.  This can perhaps seem more Machiavellian but is a part of workplace and transit system realities.  Ultimately, if the other options don’t work, it often takes an external crisis or shift to make the change happen.  Someone retires or moves on, new board members require different directions, a competitor moves in or–in the case of a transit system–things like upcoming construction or development makes an unpopular yet ultimately better route change necessary.  Be aware of the shifting landscape and opportunities that may arise to make change possible.

Other Thoughts?

Like I said, what I’ve listed above are based on my own win-some-lose-some experiences of trying to make change in this big ole world.  I’m always curious to know what others might add or do differently in the comments below.

1 thought on “Artful Nudging: Ideas for Overcoming Resistance to Change

  1. Maria lockley

    Insightful and articulate as always and very much a part of all projects and resonates with exactly how I’m dealing with my programme/ project today. I have had some hiccups and resistance from both the ‘doers’ and the decision makers. A slower change process and one that is not expedited towards false deadlines and given every chance for success is a good project principle I like to keep in my tool kit too.


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