Formula for Accepting Change

How can we overcome other’s resistance to important & necessary change?

By John Ledwith, MSOD, PCC

Dollarphotoclub_73482577Have you ever asked yourself, “Why don’t people get it, this change is really important to the survival of our business?” Or perhaps the change is a really great opportunity and people don’t embrace your enthusiasm for pursuing it?

Sometimes the reason for the change may be obvious to all and still it is difficult to get people behind it – they can’t seem to get beyond just talking about it. Or perhaps they take a few compulsory or symbolic steps forward and then follow-through wanes. Sometimes it feels like you are making progress. People are nodding their heads and even going through the motions, but in the end you may not find the change to be sustainable. Once you are on to the next priority or crisis, people go back to doing things the same old way.   We frequently call this resistance to change.

There is a formula1 for overcoming resistance to change that has been around for decades. It is quite insightful, simply elegant, widely quoted, and shared widely with clients by consultants and trainers world-wide.

Yet over 70% of change efforts fail!

I discovered that while clients might have heard of the formula, they would forget about it, when it mattered most – during the planning and day to day execution of change. So I asked myself, how this simple, elegant and powerful concept can have greater “stickiness.”

The answer came to me one day over lunch with a client. She was sharing her desire to implement a major process improvement change in response to her customer and upper management demands. Implementing Lean Six Sigma would require some major operational and cultural changes. She was frustrated about the resistance to this change. My client had heard of the formula, but neither of us could remember all of the letters in the formula. So I found myself drawing the following diagram on the back of a napkin.

Johns blog pictures

After explaining the symbols, I saw my client light up. She had quite a few new insights about the steps she needed to take in order to develop enough readiness for her change. Those insights were the first steps in a long journey to change how the organization delivered value to its customers. Those changes resulted in superior results, happier customers and world-wide recognition in the form of winning the “Shingo Award.”

I realized my “drawing” had greater “stickiness” than the formula, when months later I overheard my client, her leadership team and others using my drawing to develop plans to address resistance to change.

So let me explain my symbolic rendition of the classic formula for OVERCOMING RESISTANCE TO CHANGE:

blg3Discontent with the Present State

There must be a shared discontent with the current state of affairs. Too often organizations want to protect their employees from worrying about adverse business conditions. So like over protective parents, they keep the bad news to themselves. And they are surprised when people resist the change.

People need to not only understand “why change is needed,” they need to share that view with conviction and be willing to change. Communicating the reasons alone may not be enough. We need to help people process the information in such a way that they also come to the conclusion that there is a compelling need to change. This is not a manipulative conversation, but rather an authentic one where everyone, including the leader, will learn more about the current challenges.

But we cannot just talk about the challenges without developing a shared sense of hope for the future. Without this hopefulness, people may slip into a state of hopelessness and /or helplessness.


blgMore Desirable Future State  

In addition to discontent with the current state of affairs, there must be a vision of a more desirable future state. The vision needs to be more than just the leader’s vision, it must be one that is mutually desired by the people in the organization. It must be compelling so that people rally behind it AND own it as their own. People support and “make happen” what they help create. Co-creating this shared vision provides the guiding light.

HOWEVER, having ONLY a vision for a more desirable future is not enough, if we don’t have a plan to get there.


blg2Achievable 1st Steps  

Some changes may be a series of well-known steps, e.g. rearranging the furniture in my office to make guests feel more comfortable. Other changes are more complex. Frequently all of the steps to get there are unknown and only unfold along the journey. It is this lack of knowing the entire path that can stop people from following through.

Getting clear about first steps and helping people see themselves as actors in those first steps unleashes energy for all to move forward. Progress and success in those first steps helps to develop excitement for taking further steps. People are more likely to see and commit to a role in making the change, if they have contributed to defining what those steps are likely to be. By co-creating our plans, we tap into employee creativity, passion and commitment, while minimizing any adverse consequences from our own blind spots.


John blog 5Greater than the Perceived Cost of Change

So now we have people sharing our discontent with the current state, our vision for the future and some achievable first steps AND STILL we may not have sustainable support for the change. If there is a significant effort or cost to changing that greatly out-weighs the perceived benefits of changing, it will be difficult to get people behind it. People must perceive the benefits of the change as being more valuable than the “cost” of making that change.

A Final Consideration

A last thing to consider is that this formula for overcoming resistance to change is multiplicative. Just like in algebra, if one of the variables is zero, the end result is zero.

If one of the THREE conditions is missing, we are not likely to influence people to change. And those THREE conditions need to ALL be present throughout the change effort.


What new insights and curiosities about change has this evoked in you?

  • Think about a change you were a part of in the past.
    • Which of the 3 conditions for overcoming resistance were well developed and shared by the people impacted by the change? How was that helpful for moving forward?
    • Which of the 3 conditions for overcoming resistance were less developed and might require some further actions on your part? How was that a barrier to moving forward?
  • How might you use these concepts for overcoming resistance, as you plan future changes?

Want to Learn More?

Would like to learn more about overcoming resistance to change, as well as practical steps you can take to develop readiness and support for your change initiatives? Please don’t hesitate to contact us for a consult with John.


1  The original formula for overcoming resistance to change was developed by David Gleicher in the 1960’s and published by Dick Beckhard and Reuben Harris in their seminal work, Organizational Transitions, Managing Complex Change (Addison Wesley, 1977 & 1987). It was described as C = (ABD) > X) where C is change, A is the dissatisfaction, B is a desired state, D is practical steps to achieving the desired state, and X is the cost of the change. It was later simplified by Kathie Dannemiller as D (dissatisfaction) x V (vision) x F (first steps) > R (resistance).