Tackling Resistance to Innovation

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Executives and business owners often find the greatest obstacle to innovation isn’t the change itself, but employees’ resistance to it. Fear typically drives this. Employees may be concerned about their ability to manage or control changes. They may worry about the ways innovation is likely to alter (or even eliminate) their jobs. Some employees balk at changes if their responsibilities leave them little time or energy to learn the new processes or technology. Others may recall past attempts at innovation within the company that wasn’t successful and assume the latest project will be more of the same.

5 steps to success

Resistance to change is normal. But for projects to succeed, you’ll need to garner solid support from most employees. The following steps can help you do that.

  1. Communicate. To the extent you can, describe to employees how things are changing and what the effects will be. For instance, if you’re implementing a new software system, how will it impact employees’ jobs? Will it change reporting relationships? Also, let employees know how the innovation will benefit the company. Will it open new markets? Establish the company’s reputation as a leader in its space? Discuss how the benefits will flow to employees. This could mean talking about the expanded job opportunities likely to result as the company grows. Or, a new technology solution may allow employees to spend less time on repetitive tasks and more on jobs that make better use of their skills. At the same time, be upfront if the change is likely to affect employees in ways some might not like. For instance, suppose a new accounts payable system will streamline invoice processing, but also means employees will need to alter their workflow. Let workers know how processes will change, as well as the steps the company is taking to help them transition. If past attempts at innovation haven’t been as successful as everyone hoped, talk with employees about the steps the company is taking to improve the results this time. Those who understand the reasons for a change, as well as its likely benefits and consequences, are less likely to fear it. Conversely, a lack of communication can leave employees confused and even more fearful. They may assume management is withholding information because the change will negatively impact workers.
  2. Get input. As much as possible, obtain input about the proposed innovation from employees at all levels and departments. Offer a venue in which they can share their concerns without fear of judgment. It’s possible a change that appears minor overall will have a significant impact on some employees’ jobs. In addition, the more that employees can provide input, the more likely they are to take ownership of the change. And the discussions may yield insight that proves valuable to a successful transition.
  3. Assemble an implementation team. The team should include a sponsor who understands and can navigate the company’s culture and smooth any bureaucratic hurdles. It also should include a champion who can help make the case for the change to employees.
  4. Provide training. When relevant, offer training. Employees often fear innovation because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to master a new process or technology. Provide the education and resources they’ll need to successfully adapt, including time away from their normal responsibilities to learn the new system or process.
  5. Start small. Test and correct any glitches with a small group of employees. You’re more likely to gain an early win and build momentum. A steady rollout also helps employees gradually become accustomed to a new process or system, which can drive acceptance.

Ongoing feedback is key

Have systems in place that enable you to gather employee feedback on an ongoing basis. Even the most thoughtful and well-implemented innovations can improve with revision.

Innovation and change are rarely easy. You can ease the transition by acknowledging and addressing the reasons employees might resist, providing tools to help them learn the impact on their jobs and work, starting small — and revising when necessary.

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