The Human Dimension: Observations about the Change Process

Models of the change process and for implementing innovation abound. While they tend to use different terminology, almost without exception they stress the importance of a mission and vision statement, the need to communicate this statement widely, the importance of gaining acceptance and ownership of change initiatives early on, and the need for a reward system that supports innovation and change. Each model provides a blueprint to follow and offers concrete suggestions about implementation.

The one constant in all models that is often overlooked is this: From the beginning of every initiative there must be deliberate activities to develop the commitment of those individuals whose support is critical to the project’s success. Some of the most important time early in a project is that spent identifying these key individuals (heads of relevant units, those with talents that are needed, “gatekeepers” to potentially supportive people and resources), engaging them in one-on-one conversations and small meetings, and enlisting them as members of or consultants to the project team. Such efforts are crucial to eliminating many barriers to change, substantially reducing problems later on, and opening essential doors to success.

Not surprisingly, some administrators and faculty members will be immediately supportive, others will want to wait and see, and still others will be negative about the entire idea – with the negativity of some of these seeming to be almost a gut reaction. Individual concerns can be addressed, and frequently resolved, through individual conversations. Most issues, however, surface only in group settings, and it is important to anticipate what these might.

One of the most difficult challenges is separating issues that are legitimate from those that represent an effort to maintain the status quo. Reducing the anxiety of those individuals focused more on their own discomfort with change than on the proposed initiative substantially improves the likelihood of a project’s successful implementation.

In his 1960 article “Good Reasons for Doing Nothing,” Edgar Dale, a faculty member at Ohio State University, listed eight of the most common responses of those uncomfortable with or threatened by new initiatives. Many of these are intentionally constructed to stop any effort that would change what now exists:

  1. The proposal would set a precedent.
  2. There is no precedent to guide us.
  3. We have not yet conclusively proved that the old method can’t be made to work or that the proposed new one can.
  4. It’s just another fad. (Wait long enough and it will go away.)
  5. The time is not ripe.
  6. The situation is hopeless.
  7. We can’t afford it.
  8. It is a controversial issue.

Meeting these responses head-on is usually fruitless and potentially counterproductive. It is crucial that the conversation remain focused on

  • the priorities of the institution – its mission and vision,
  • the case for why action is imperative, and
  • how the problems the initiative addresses can best be met with the resources available.

It also is useful to focus on “what could be” rather than on “what is.” Thinking always toward the ideal invites creativity, encourages breaking through artificial boundaries, adds excitement to the project, reduces tension, and ultimately facilitates major change and rapid implementation.

With any initiative problems must be faced and barriers overcome. Many problems will be extremely complex. Many barriers will in the beginning seem insurmountable. It is the first conversations held, the first meetings conducted that in the long run will make possible a change initiative’s success.

Recognize what lies behind the questions and concerns raised and be prepared to address those issues through a refocusing of attention to what could be. Through such will a large proportion of the difficulties inherent in any change process be eliminated or reduced.