Category Archives: Change Management

Why do Stakeholders Resist Change?

I guess some of my readers are thinking that this is like asking why day follow night, but recent research is digging deeper into the underlying causes.

For many years, I have used my Onion Model of Resistance to help me and my clients understand the different ways people resist change, and how project and change managers can deal with it. The six levels of resistance are like the layers of an onion: each one closer to the psychological heart of the problem, and each one being a little hotter and harder to handle.

But in research The Influence Agenda, I discovered some fascinating research that led me to a deeper understanding of one of those six layers of resistance, when people are saying, effectively: ‘I don’t like change’.

The work of Shaul Oreg at Cornell University found, unsurprisingly, that some people are more resistant to change than others. But he also found four factors that reliably predict how much resistance a person will show towards a change.

Stakeholders are likely to be more resistant when they have:

  1. A preference for routine and familiar things
  2. A preference for sticking to a plan, once it is made
  3. A tendency to get stressed by changes in plan
  4. A discomfort with changing their mind

This leads me to identify four separate versions of the ‘I don’t like change response, each of which you can, as a change agent engaging with your stakeholders, respond to in a different way.

  1. ‘I don’t like a break in routine’

Focus not on the old routine ending, but on the emergence of new routines as a transition towards a new form of stability.

  1. ‘I feel uncomfortable with sudden changes’

Long lead times and careful planning will make even a sudden change feel familiar by the time it happens.

  1. ‘I get stressed at the thought of change’

The stress response arises from feelings of not being in control. Find ways to involve the resistant stakeholder in the change process, to give them a real and meaningful sense of control.

  1. ‘Once I have made up my mind, I like to stick to it’

This ‘cognitive rigidity’ means that you should present change as being, as far as possible, consistent or a minor deviation from a pre-existing choice. The less you present it needing a discontinuous change of opinion, the better.

Of all of the disciplines a project manager needs to master, handling resistance in a positive manner is, perhaps, the hardest. It is certainly the one that the people I speak to and train fear the most. Yet, like all things, with study comes understanding and, from understanding, flow concrete techniques.

This article was first published on the APM (Association for Project Management) website on 25 November, 2014.

Dr Mike Clayton is the author of The Influence Agenda, published by Palgrave Macmillan –

The Influence Agenda by Mike Clayton

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In Tough Times, Project Management is Not Enough

In tough times, project management is not enough. People get scared and uncertain, and they need leadership to keep them motivated, confident and effective.

Who am I talking about?

Projects do more than inhabit an environment: they create one. They have a powerful effect on the people, procedures and interactions that surround them. The effects ripple outwards, so that when a project starts to go wrong, many people are affected: the project manager and the team, the project sponsor and the project steering group or board that oversees the project, the user groups and business owners, the suppliers, contractors and technical experts, and the stakeholders and bystanders.

So in tough times, “purple bus leadership” becomes essential.

Purple Bus Leadership

A project leader is able to inspire and motivate others to stay calm and contribute effectively in tough times, as well as manage them when they do. Think about two buses.

The Yellow Bus

People have to get onto the yellow bus to get where they have to go. It is well-maintained and safely driven. If it breaks down on the way, the passengers are confident that the driver will know what to do. But they cannot help but feel concerned about whether they chose the right bus, and whether it will be able to get them where they need to go.

The Purple Bus

People hear the driver of the purple bus talking about the destination, and they want to get on. They enjoy the journey and find it stimulating. They trust the driver and, if the bus breaks down, they all get out and want to help. They are confident that the driver is in control and they wait to be told what needs to be done.

Three Challenges in Tough Times

Project leaders face three challenges in tough times: resistance from people who have perceived and legitimate concerns, dealing with problems and adverse circumstances, and staying tough when you’d rather just quit.

Meeting Resistance

In times of change, resistance is inevitable. Dealing positively with that resistance is a great enough challenge at the best of times, but when you are under pressure, it can feel as if the whole world is against you.

Project leaders must understand the psychology of resistance and be able to diagnose the type of resistance that they encounter, understand why they are getting it, and have a toolbox of resources to help them engage with it constructively.

Although resistance can take many forms, it tends to sit at one of five levels, with most fundamental being: “I don’t understand why we need to change.” Here, the resistor is unaware of the external pressures for change and is therefore, quite reasonably, questioning why you are investing time, effort and resources in making a change at all. This is nothing more nor less than the old refrain: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

As we go down through the levels, the resistance gets hotter and more complex to handle. At this first level, you need to make the evidence of the need for change clear, finding the best way to represent it so that your resister can understand and internalise it. At the next level, you are going to have to work harder.

At level two, you are likely to hear something more like this: “I don’t understand why this change.” Now the resister gets the need for change, but fails to see how or why your project is the right response. As you deal with each layer, you are likely to find more beneath it. That’s why I call this the “Onion Model of Resistance”. Read more about this in The Handling Resistance Pocketbook.

Up against it

When something goes wrong, a knee jerk reaction is rarely effective and never wise. Instead, project leaders should deploy the SCOPE process to take control of their response to the problem.

The SCOPE process is a five step process for mentally taking control of a situation.

  • Stop
    Mentally and physically pause. Avoid rushing in.
  • Clarify
    Seek out all relevant facts that will help you understand the situation and its potential consequences.
  • Options
    Identify alternative options for your response, and evaluate each against potential consequences. Select your course of action.
  • Proceed
    Now act decisively.
  • Evaluate
    Review outcomes against your evaluation and, if you are not getting the results you expected, Stop – Clarify, select a new Option, …

Staying Tough

Perhaps the biggest challenge in tough times is to remain tough yourself. By “tough”, I don’t mean “hard” or “assertive”, but resilient. For me, resilience marks an important difference between a capable project leader and a great project leader. When things go wrong, resilient project leaders start to shine. An aura of confidence and optimism draws people towards them, inspires trust and confidence, and creates a willingness to follow.

Maintaining your resilience requires both mental and physical discipline. You cannot take the objective, partially detached perspective you will need if you are tired, mentally drained and physically exhausted. Adrenalin will help, but followers need to see calm at the centre of the storm, so here are some top tips for how to create the basis for resilience in the teeth of adversity.

  • Stay optimistic
    Look at the opportunities and resources you have available to you with a positive eye and keep your focus on what needs to be achieved. In the face of setbacks, acknowledge them, but don’t dwell on them. Learn the lesson and move on to the next thing.
  • Suppress the temptation for blame
    Whether aimed at yourself or others, blame serves no purpose. People know what they have done – the thing that matters is to overcome the problem and all blame will do is foster fearfulness at a time when you most need courage.
  • Be objective
    Look at the evidence of what has happened as objectively as you can avoid the temptation to let false, limiting or magical beliefs cloud your judgement. Acknowledge your beliefs about events, and then challenge them robustly, by testing them against all of the evidence, before you act on them. At stressful times we tend to personalise adversity, or focus on one causal factor – which may not be the most significant, if it is relevant at all.
  • Take care of yourself
    Be sure to make time for good quality food, sufficient exercise and plenty of rest, so that when a crisis hits, your batteries have reserves of energy. If the crisis continues, then make sure you recharge those batteries from time to time.

This essay is linked to Part 3 of Brilliant Project Leader by Mike Clayton.

Brilliant Project Leader

What the best project leaders know, do and say to get results, every time.

Brilliant Project Leader by Mike Clayton

Brilliant Project Leader
Order here

“This has the ability to greatly enhance your effectiveness and capability.  It is a must read for all current or aspiring project leaders.”
Charles Vivian
Head of Programme and Project Leadership
North Highland, UK

Tips for Project Leaders

There is a wealth of great concepts and tools that project and change leaders can apply to your professional or personal practice.  Here are seven of them from one of my ‘Thoughtscape’ newsletter tip-sheets.

1. Get people to Honour Commitments

We all have a conscience: let’s call it Jiminy Cricket.  One of the biggest problems leaders have, at all levels, is people letting you down by not delivering on their commitments.  So let’s see how the Jiminy Cricket effect can help you.

It is Jiminy Cricket that nags us when we know we need to do something to honour a promise or commitment that we made.  So to boost the Jiminy Cricket effect, when you secure a commitment, you must ensure Jiminy is awake.  Do this by asking for the commitment directly, and doing so in a more formal setting.

2. Maintain Motivation with Milestones

Project managers think of milestones as a valuable planning and monitoring tool.  Project leaders use them also as a powerful tool to motivate too. Impending milestones give a great sense of urgency and pressure.  Missed milestones – if you are unfortunate – create an opportunity to rally to the new deadline, and milestones met offer the chance to recognise and celebrate achievement. People feel more motivated when they have a sense that they are making progress.

More milestones = more motivation

3. Communicate Setbacks Effectively

Setbacks are a part of life, and a challenge for leaders.  It is is easy to lead when everything goes well, so we measure leaders by how they handle adversity.  The first skill to learn is how to communicate the setback.

In communicating, honesty is not the best policy…

… it is the only policy.

So start by setting out clearly and objectively, how things are.  Then paint a picture of how you believe things can be.  The challenge is to bridge the gap, so lay out how you plan to do this.  Then call people to action with a clear next step, and close by making the link between their actions and the  enticing future ahead.

4. Get Comfortable with Resistance

Mike’s first rule of change:

“Resistance is inevitable”

So why is it that so many leaders fear resistance and look upon it as destructive?  In truth, it is simply a part of the process – and understanding it will make it easier and more comfortable to deal with.

My “Onion Model” sets out six levels of resistance: you can read more about how I created it on my main blog and, of course, it is summarised in Brilliant Project Leader. It is fully described in my little book, The Handling Resistance Pocketbook.

5. Understand Patterns of Conflict

Conflict and psychological game-playing are a constant part of our lives and a wise leader needs to be able to be able to analyse the patterns and break the cycle.

Brilliant Project Leader and The Handling Resistance Pocketbook cover this in some detail and discusses one of my favourite tools for analysing unhelpful interactions between people: “the Drama Triangle“.

Use the Drama Triangle to recognise three roles that habitually recur in conflict and manipulation situations: “the persecutor“, who feels good by making you feel bad; “the victim“, who feels good by loading the responsibility for their troubles on you; and “the rescuer“, who feels good by offering you  way out of your discomfort.

6. Teams Need a Name

Part of giving a team a sense of identity is giving it a name.  A well-chosen name can confer purpose, identity, mystery, style, and clarity. Examples of good and bad choices (you decide which) come from the team names chosen by candidates in the UK and US series of The Apprentice.  You can see the list here, and try to guess which were used in the US and which in the UK… and which were chosen by men and which by women.  I think some will surprise you.

7. When things go Wrong:
. . . SCOPE the Problem 

Knee-jerk reactions are rarely resourceful. But you don’t have time for unfocused thinking.  So use the SCOPE process to handle a tricky situation:

  • Stop: Take a deep breath and a mental pause.  Maybe stop for longer if you need to.
  • Clarify: What do you really know about the situation?  What do you need to know? Gather data.
  • Options: More options = more choice = more control.  But having generated options, assess them and make a decision.
  • Proceed: With a decision made; proceed with determination and vigour.  Commit as though no alternative exists.
  • Evaluate: Continually evaluate progress – if you aren’t getting the results you need, then Stop, Clarify and look at new Options.

If you enjoyed this, why not subscribe to my ‘Thoughtscape’ newsletter.

Brilliant Project Leader

What the best project leaders know, do and say to get results, every time.

Brilliant Project Leader by Mike Clayton

Brilliant Project Leader
Order here

“This has the ability to greatly enhance your effectiveness and capability.  It is a must read for all current or aspiring project leaders.”
Charles Vivian
Head of Programme and Project Leadership
North Highland, UK

What Does It Take to Be a Thought Leader?

I want to point you to a first rate article on a first rate blog. Daryl Conner gets it absolutely spot on his analysis of what thought leadership is. For anyone who aspires to lead change, his blog is one of the very best resources for subtle thinking, clearly expressed.

What Does It Take to Be a Thought Leader in the Field of Change Facilitation?

The Origins of Project Management

For many years, I have asserted that project management goes back to the pyramid builders and even earlier.  I like to imagine an ancient Egyptian official sketching a work breakdown for his (it would have been a man then, I am sure) Pharaoh (though this may easily have been a woman) on papyrus.

Who knows?

But we can answer a related question: when did project management appear in the literature.  Thanks to Google’s wonderful resource, we can easily search millions of books in English for references.


Let’s start with the word “project”.  I consulted my trusty Oxford English Dictionary* first.  The word’s original usage (now extinct) was:

“a plan, draft, scheme, or table of something; a design or pattern according to which something is made”

This goes back to the early fifteenth century and therefore predates Google’s earliest data. Google cannot (yet?) distinguish between meanings and usages of a word, but there is clearly a continuity of evolving meaning, so this chart of usage is informative.

(You can click on these charts to enlarge them)

Ngram 01: "project"

But only to a degree, because it does not distinguish the noun (which we are interested in) from the verb (which we are not).

But notice the apparent increased usage from around 1920.  Let’s have a look in more detail.

Ngram 02: "project"

What is causing that? Could we be seeing the start of modern project management? Let’s find out?

Project Management


Ngram 03: "project management"


I think the answer to that question, is maybe, but not likely.  What I think is fascinating about this chart is the bump during the closing years of WW2.  Is it a statistical, lexical coincidence or was the phrase first getting used then?

We can also distinguish between British and American English usages of Project Management.

British usage is the upper chart; American the lower.

Ngram 04: "project management"


Change Management and Risk Management

Risk management seems to have taken off in the 1970s…

Ngram 05: "risk management"


… whilst change management started to thrive in the 1990s.  Hey, I was in right at the start!

Ngram 06: "change management"

Would you like to play Ngram?

You can do your own research and feedback your insights to the comments below.  Generate your own Ngrams at 

Please let me know what you discover and, if you create your own Ngrams and blog about them, link back to here, please.

Warning: Playing with this tool is extremely distracting.  Do not do it when you have more important things to do like work, exercise, eating, or sleep.

* Yes, as an author, I felt I had to have a copy of the full OED – although I did get it secondhand, in the Compact format, photographically reduced to nine pages per page and supplied with a big magnifying glass.

Falling off the Curve: Six Ways your Change Project can Fail

There are many different articulations of most models, and the Patterson-Connor Commitment Curve is no different.  What is different is that it is hard to be sure what the original looks like.

I like to read the original papers that present authors’ work in their own words, so I subscribe to a service called EBSCOhost that offers journal articles from a wide array of business journals. One of them is Training and Development, formally known as Training and Development Journal.  But sadly, when I select the article “Building Commitment to Organizational Change” by Daryl Connor and Robert Patterson, I get the message: “This database normally includes full text of articles available from this publication. However, this particular article is not included at the request of the rights holder.”

Failure to find "Building commitment to organizational change".

So I have to rely on third party representations.  Robert, Daryl, if you see this article, please do get in touch – I would love a copy of your original work.

I suppose that doesn’t matter, because I always feel free to modify a model according to my own experience and, judging by the variety of versions on the web, I am not alone.

The Original

Here is my version of what I believe to be the base model.

The Patterson-Connor Commitment Curve

Patterson and Connor suggest a series of milestones along the process of change, that sit within three phases:

  1. Preparation
  2. Acceptance
  3. Commitment

Modes of Failure

This model leads me to list six modes of failure, each arising from failure to achieve one of Patterson’s and Connor’s milestones.

Falling off the Patterson-Connor Commitment Curve

Change projects fail when:

  1. The promoting team fails to make meaningful contact with all of their stakeholders.  They do not engage them and properly consult, so failing to understand their needs, desires and expectations – setting themselves and their projects up for failure.
  2. Having contacted stakeholders, change agents fail to create adequate awareness of the driving need for change or the real benefits of the selected solution .
  3. Stakeholders may be aware of the change that is to take place, but fail to understand it fully – or worse, they misunderstand it.  This leads to scepticism, cynicism and rejection.
  4. Stakeholders may understand the change, but they may not like it.  Negative perception may be illusory or real.  They may not like the change for spurious reasons linked to misunderstanding, emotional reasons linked to fear of change, or real reasons arising from genuine negative outcomes for them or for people they care about.
  5. Despite positive perceptions, the change may be rejected prior to commitment.  This could be due to new constraints or priorities, or a failure of organisational will.
  6. Adoption does not always lead to effective organisational change, where the new ways of working are institutionalised and made a “how things are”.  All sorts of failings – in the project and outside – can frustrate your ability to harvest real value from the change.

The “so what?”

The Patterson-Connor Commitment Curve is an excellent model of the stages of change.  However, for me, its greatest use is in understanding and predicting the modes of failure.  A lot of learning research shows we learn best from our failures, so I speculate that we may plan best when we identify failure modes and plan for them.  At the very least, this approach addresses planning fallacy (irrational belief that our plans are somehow “right”) head on!

Building commitment to organizational change.
Conner, Daryl R.; Patterson, Robert W.
Training & Development Journal, Vol 36(4), Apr 1982, 18-30.

NAO damning report on NHS NPfIT

A snappy title?  I doubt I could have fitted the full names into the title box, so:

National Audit Office - home

NAO: The UK’s National Audit Office scrutinises public spending on behalf of Parliament.  More here.


NHS: The National Health Service – still, despite political rhetoric, one of the very best health services in the world and still free at the point of need. More here.


NPfIT: The National Programme for IT (information Technology).  Sometimes called “Connecting for Health” it is an £11billion+ programme to create unified broadband network to share patient records across the whole NHS. More here.

How Damning?

Very: their report “concludes that the £2.7 billion spent so far on care records systems does not represent value for money. And, based on performance so far, the NAO has no grounds for confidence that the remaining planned spending of £4.3 billion on care records systems [one part of NPfIT] will be any different.”  Ouch!  (from the press release)

Some of my former colleagues have worked on this project, so I need to tread a little carefully, especially as some I like and respect greatly.

But the NAO’s conclusions speak for themselves:

“This is yet another example of a department fundamentally underestimating the scale and complexity of a major IT-enabled change programme” said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO.

Change – Projects – Risk

The subtitle of this blog: “Change-Projects-Risk” is there because the three are intimately linked.  At Deloitte, at the time I was leaving, several partners made it clear to me that “Change Management and Project Management are different disciplines: you are a Project Manager, Mike”

I saw this – and still see this – as nonsense.  Change management and project management are labels for two ends of a spectrum and whilst I understand the business need to create artificial divides to make a service offering clear, the real world is messier.  And the management of project and change risk is vital – all the more so as the scale and complexity rises.

And when this attitude contaminates the thinking of practitioners on the ground, as I suspect it did with some of the leaders of NPfIT, then the lack of sophistication has consequences.

Many Many Reasons

The NAO report does not go into the reasons for the failings in great depth.  But it is clear that there are many many reasons for the NPfIT’s failings – as you would expect – a complex set of issues in a complex world.

The “so what?”

I wrote Risk Happens! for this very reason – too few project managers give sufficient time and effort to identifying potential points of failure, dealing with them and managing risk.  Planning is often over-confident by a BIG margin.

I’d love to write “Change Happens!” about managing the change that runs alongside major projects, but two publishers have told me “books on change management don’t sell.”  Unless, that is, they feature loveable mice or penguins.

But I have plans… watch this space.

For fuller details of the NAO reports: