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3 reasons why change resistance can be an advantage in agile transformation

Updated: Mar 12

Today's organisations need to change at an ever-increasing pace. Accelerating technological, socio-cultural, political and economic changes are creating a rapidly changing competitive market environment where companies face more threats and opportunities than ever before. As a result, the organisational life cycle is becoming increasingly dynamic, as companies that successfully respond to market changes thrive at a faster pace, while less adaptable and inflexible companies lag behind.

Despite the need for change programmes to survive, most organisations resist change initiatives. Introducing the idea of change can be threatening and uncertain for both management and employees. The study of the impact of organisational change on these employee emotions has covered a range of issues and can be traced back to three main antecedents, namely changes in working conditions, changes in status and future prospects, and organisational treatment (Kiefer, 2005). Accordingly, any negative impact on these categories will result in negative emotions that may lead to resistance, a loss of trust in the organisation or even exit. Therefore, organisations need a structured approach according to these three criteria to reinforce support for the change agenda among employees.

An important determinant of the approach to change is how resistance to change is perceived and managed in the organisation. Resistance to change is generally viewed as "irrational, counterproductive behaviour engaged in by a particular minority of employees to the inevitable detriment of the organisation" (King & Anderson, 1995). This definition presents a narrow, one-sided view of resistance to change, emphasising the negative effects of reactive employee behaviour and defining it as a threat that occurs and must be managed during change initiatives. However, resistance to change can also be a resource that change initiators can use to proactively work to improve and refine change programmes. In what follows, we will discuss three main benefits of change resistance (Ford, Ford and D'Amelio, 2008), illustrating each with examples from our agile transformation experience.

Existence of resistance

The existence of an organisation involves many dimensions, one of which is understood at the discursive level. This dimension includes the explicit and implicit narratives and explanations created by the members of the organisation that relate to how they feel about the organisation, how they think about it and how they behave. Importantly, these interpretations necessarily emerge as members of the organization attempt to reduce uncertainty by explaining organizational events (Weick, 1995). Thus, a conscious approach to narrative management becomes an important part of maintaining the organization. It follows that change programmes must also have a well-established narrative or 'change story'. Change is a disruptive event in organisational life and is therefore inevitably accompanied by discourse. It follows that the quality of the discourse that emerges also has a significant impact on how members relate to the change, and so the programme must be supported by an appropriate change story. First of all, the idea of change needs to be embedded in the minds of workers, and this can be helped by resistance that stimulates dialogue. For example, in an agile transformation, employees may fear that an initiative to introduce new roles and eliminate old ones is a disguised attempt to make them redundant. Giving space to these concerns at the beginning of the programme can help change agents to initiate appropriate dialogues and steer the narrative in favour of the organisation. In this case, clarifying this at the outset will reassure those affected by the change if they know what impact it will or will not have on them.

The power of resistance to support active engagement

Resistance is active energy, a sign that the recipients of the change have already started to cognitively process the change. It is wrong to label resistance as irrational, because the attitude of resistant employees can also result from a careful consideration of the dangers of the change programme. In an agile transformation, members of the product delivery team may argue that the traditional waterfall methodology would be more effective in developing larger projects with many requirements. These concerns indicate that employees care about the quality of their delivery and are already actively engaged in weighing the pros and cons of a change initiative. One-on-one conversations with these team members, group interviews or workshops to demonstrate the benefits of the agile methodology for larger projects (e.g., more efficient delivery by continuously incorporating changing requirements or higher customer satisfaction through continuous engagement during the development process) may persuade them to change their minds and actively support the change initiative. Moreover, the mere fact of listening, discussing and reflecting on dissenting voices can ease the tension within them. Often this resistance stems from a sense of being left out, and simply reflecting their views or even actively incorporating their ideas into the programme can bring them fully on board with the change initiative. In our example, depending on our approach to change, the commitment to the agile programme may thus be even greater for employees who were willing to rationally consider the benefits of change than for those who just accepted the change and went with the flow.

The reinforcing power of resistance

Resistance is a form of conflict, and conflict plays a key role in organisational decision-making. Allowing space for different ideas, perspectives and opinions can contribute to better decision-making outcomes because more information is available to weigh the pros and cons of each option. These benefits can also be captured by giving space to counter-arguments to change initiatives and refine the initiative accordingly. However, facilitating workplace conflict is a delicate issue, due to the inherent emotional conflicts (Parayitam & Dooley, 2007) that can have a negative impact on the parties involved. A change agent with a deep understanding of group dynamics and facilitation skills can help to harness the benefits of conflict resolution for the organisation, while at the same time minimising the negative impact on participants. In our example, a well-structured agile transformation also employs agile coach experts who work closely with teams during implementation. In addition to actively supporting the transformation by sharing the principles and approaches of agile working, agile coaches add value to the programme by encouraging team members to express their voices and concerns during retrospectives, which provides key feedback to management on the progress of the programme, and also helps to express repressed negative emotions.

Recipes for successful change management often focus on a structured approach to managing resistance to change in organisations. While we support a proactive approach on the part of the initiators, for example by involving employees in the change programme, we consider the approach of framing resistance to change as a problem to be overcome to be one-sided. Instead, we suggest that change agents use resistance as a resource to improve the programme and strengthen the commitment of participants. While it will never be easy to get through a large-scale change programme, such as an agile transformation, we hope our recommendations will help you get started on this journey.


Author: Magyar Bence


Ford, J., Ford, L., & D'Amelio, A. (2008). Resistance to Change: The Rest of the Story. Academy Of Management Review, 33(2), 362-377. doi: 10.5465/amr.2008.31193235

Kiefer, T. (2005), Feeling bad: antecedents and consequences of negative emotions in ongoing change. J. Organiz. Behav., 26: 875-897.

King, N., & Anderson, N. (1995). Innovation and change in organizations. London: Routledge.

Parayitam, S., & Dooley, R. S. (2007). The relationship between conflict and decision outcomes: Moderating effects of cognitive- and affect-based trust in strategic decision-making teams. International Journal of Conflict Management, 18(1), 42–73.

Weick, K. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications.

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