Walk into any conference room in America with a proposal for changing operations and you'll get a big show of resistance. Push people to change, and they'll push right back. You can chalk it up to human nature—resistance to change seems to be encoded right into our DNA—but that doesn't make it any easier to deal with.
Until you figure out a way to overcome that resistance, your change initiative doesn't stand a chance. You can try to force your program through. But what you're likely to get is an even more resistant organization or worse, one that pays lip service to your mandates for a couple of months before reverting to the old ways. A better approach is to develop an effective change management program— typically a protocol that includes fully explaining the goals, engaging everyone in an ongoing dialogue and addressing all of the emotions and objections that arise.
But before you can deal with problems related to resistance, you need to bring the reasons to light. And that's not always easy. Many times people can't tell you why they're clinging to the old ways of doing things.
Speaking at the recent Manugistics envision 2003 User Conference in Washington, D.C., Rick Blasgen, senior vice president of integrated logistics at ConAgra Foods, acknowledged the difficulties of managing corporate change—specifically, change initiatives directed at creating a fully integrated supply chain. Yet he emphasized the real need to address the problem, ranking change management on a par with technology and the ability to break down functional silos as the keys to supply chain management success.
As part of his presentation, Blasgen regaled the audience with an anecdote that illustrated how people fall victim to the "But that's the way we've always done it" syndrome. As he told it, five monkeys are in a cage with a bunch of bananas hanging from the top and a staircase placed beneath it. Very quickly, one of the monkeys spies the fruit and heads up the stairs. But as soon as he begins his ascent, the zookeeper sprays all the other monkeys in the cage with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt to climb the stairs. The result is the same. All the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey attempts to climb the stairs, the other monkeys attack it. They know by now that if one of them starts up the stairs, the rest of them are in for an icy shower, so they try to prevent it.
Next, the zookeeper puts away the hose and removes one monkey from the cage and replaces it with a new one.Naturally, as soon as the newly arrived monkey spies the bananas, he takes off up the stairs. To his shock and dismay, he's immediately attacked by all the other monkeys.
The zookeeper then replaces another monkey with a new one, who, like his predecessor, heads up the stairs.He too is attacked, with the previous newcomer taking part with enthusiasm. Every time a new monkey is added and starts to eye the fruit, he's attacked, even though most of the monkeys that are beating him up have no idea why.
After the zookeeper has replaced each of the five original primates, none of which has ever been sprayed with water because of its cellmates' actions, something curious is observed. None of the new monkeys ever approaches the stairs in pursuit of the bananas. Why not? "Because, that's the way it's always been done around here!"
Silly? Maybe. Telling? Very. The next time someone says you can't change something because "that's the way it's always been done around here," you might be tempted to spray him or her with a hose. Instead, simply ask why. Chances are very good he or she doesn't know the answer. That's your opening to tell the story of the monkeys, share a laugh, and acknowledge his or her fears. And then you can get down to the business of change.