Overcoming Resistance to Change


Since people in all roles are involved in organizational change, both as change agents and as resisters, the target audience for the session includes anyone who is interested in learning more about the forms of resistance they may see in their own organization, and how to overcome it. Because of the nature of the information, there is no real separation among beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels; nor is there any arcane material geared specifically for either technical or management personnel.


The facilitators hope that participants will gain a deeper understanding of why people resist change – possibly even why they themselves resist change – based on an improved appreciation for different perspectives and different priorities. We also hope participants will be able to return to their own organizations with a toolkit of effective and practical methods to overcome resistance to change.


Apart from the presenters’ personal experiences, the session draws on research and experience from a range of sources in the IT industry, the agile movement, the field of psychology, and management science concerning personal and organizational resistance to change. It is designed to engage participants through experiential learning techniques, humor, and direct hands-on exercises to help them understand the reasons why intelligent people resist change, even when the benefits of the change appear self-evident to those who are promoting it. The session includes group exercises to practice techniques designed to overcome resistance to change. While much of the material could apply to any sort of change, our focus is on organizational change toward agile/lean culture and practices.


(1) Introduction

Why do people resist change, even when the benefit is self-evident? Why would a sincere, competent, sincere person of good will resist change?

(2) Resistance as a Resource game

Hands-on group exercise to explore different points of view of why people might resist change

(3) Why do people resist change?

Premise: People resist change when they perceive a potential threat to themselves

(4) Types of resistance

  • Cognitive
  • Emotional
  • Behavioral

(5) Forms of resistance

  • Active / passive
  • Overt / covert
  • Individual / group
  • Aggressive / timid

(6) Who will resist? It depends on who proposes the change

  • Business management
  • IT management
  • IT technical staff
  • Differences in priorities

(7) Is resistance (necessarily) bad?

  • Destructive resistance
  • Constructive resistance

(8) Behavior patterns and political plays of resisters

  • Counter-implementation strategies
  • Counter-counter-implementation strategies

(9) A six-stage approach to overcoming resistance

  • Facilitation
  • Education
  • Involvement
  • Negotiation
  • Manipulation
  • Coercion

(10) Overcoming preconceptions about “agile”

  • Value proposition
  • Buzzwords

(11) Overcoming resistance: Role-playing game

Hands-on group exercise to practice techniques for overcoming resistance

(12) Retrospective

  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?
  • Did you recognize types/forms of resistance or political behaviors from your organization?
  • Can you apply this approach in your organization?

(13) Open-ended discussion


This is a new workshop developed by Dave Nicolette and Lasse Koskela based on workshops each has presented in the past. Both facilitators are consultants who specialize in agile organizational transformation and agile team coaching. As such, they frequently deal with resistance to change.

Lasse’s Resistance as a Resource workshop was presented at XP Day London 2006 and XP Days Germany 2006. Dave’s Introducing Agile Where Agile Isn’t Wanted was presented at Tulsa TechFest 2007. The present workshop combines ideas and feedback from those events with experience and new information.

This has been submitted to XP 2008, but we will not know whether it is accepted until after the review period for Agile 2008.

Additional information

Kotter and Schlesinger’s Six Change Approaches (summary): http://www.valuebasedmanagement.net/methods_kotter_change_approaches.htm...

Dale Emery’s Resistance as a Resource Game: http://cwd.dhemery.com/2005/04

Preliminary version of presentation slides: http://www.davenicolette.net/goodies/overcoming_resistance.ppt


After asking participants to suggest reasons they believe people resist change, the facilitators guide participants in an exercise designed to help them see things from the point of view of others in their organization as a way to understand why reasonable people might see things differently than those who are promoting change. The exercise is based on the work of Dale Emery, and is a variant of his “Resistance as a Resource” game.

The purpose of the game is to stimulate thinking about the differing priorities and concerns of various groups in an organization. The basic premise is that people resist change because they are worried about their own status after the change has been implemented.

After a discussion of the results of the exercise, the facilitators describe several types of resistance people commonly experience when they are fearful about the implications of a proposed change: Cognitive, emotional, and behavioral. These types of resistance are expressed in a variety of ways: Active vs. passive, overt vs. covert, individual vs. group, aggressive vs. timid.

The idea to adopt agile software development methods may originate in different parts of an organization. The sources of resistance and the reasons for the resistance vary based, in part, on who is proposing the change. If we think of an organization as comprising three main constituencies – Business, IT Management, and IT Technical – we can identify potential sources of resistance as well as natural allies in the transition to agile methods depending on which of these constituencies is proposing the change. The key lies in understanding the differences in priorities of the three groups, and how to explain the value proposition of agile in ways that make sense to each.

The facilitators describe behavior patterns that are commonly observed when various groups within an organization resist change. This portion of the presentation is largely based on the work of David Buchanan and David Boddy, authors of The Expertise of the Change Agent: Public Performance and Backstage Activity. It is also based in part on the personal experiences of the facilitators and on feedback from participants in previous workshops on the same general subject that each has presented.

Armed with a good understanding of the reasons for resistance and for the ways in which resistance may be expressed, participants are now ready to learn practical and effective techniques for overcoming resistance. The facilitators present a six-stage approach to overcoming resistance, based on the work of John Kotter and Leondard Schlesinger, authors of Choosing Strategies for Change.

From most-desirable to least-desirable, the six approaches are Facilitation, Education, Involvement, Negotiation, Manipulation, and Coercion. The facilitators explain how these approaches address the three main types of resistance – Cognitive, Emotional, and Behavioral – and which approaches are realistic depending on the change agent’s position and clout in the organization, and who in the organization is resistant to the change.

This system of six approaches is then put into practice in group exercises in which participants play the roles of change agent, resister, and observer as they pretend to represent each of the three main constituencies involved in agile adoption.

The session concludes with a very agile activity – a retrospective. Participants share their observations and comments on what they experienced and what they learned during the session, and how they might apply the new skills in their own organizations. Participants also have the opportunity to share specific situations from their organizations and gain insights and suggestions from each other.