Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Rules for Successfully Implementing Change in Your Organization

A change in behavior, in attitude or in lifestyle is not easy to achieve, and some seem near impossible. However, the change process can be understood, and change can be implemented more successfully and more reliably by following a few rules.

by Ronald B. Pickett
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

My staff is bright, well educated, mature and motivated, and we communicate well. Still, when I try to institute a change, there seems to be a lot of resistance! Why is that?

In each of my last four articles—“Honing Your Interview Skills”; “Motivating 21st Century Lab Staff,” Parts 1 and 2; and “Life-Work Balance”—the underlying theme requires a change: a change in behavior, in attitude or in lifestyle. None of these changes are easy to achieve, and some seem near impossible. However, the change process can be understood, and change can be implemented more successfully and more reliably by following a few rules.

“The professional literature suggests that up to 75 percent of change efforts end in failure.” ( pdf/Conquer_02.pdf)

Resistance to change

Why do people, even smart people, resist change? Here are the most frequent reasons:

  1. People feel awkward and uncomfortable. They are comfortable doing things the way they always have and don’t want to move out of their routine.
  2. People think first about what they will lose. It may be status, routine, position, prestige or income. It takes a skillful manager to get the staff thinking about what will be gained.
  3. People feel alone even when others are having the same experience. Change has a way of isolating people. They talk about rumors, they wonder about what the impact of the change will be, but they probably don’t share their concerns and anxiety, so they feel alone.
  4. People can handle only so much change. Change seems to be a constant, and it is easy to move into a state of overload without even knowing it.
  5. People are at different levels of acceptance. Our tendency is to listen to the people who agree with us and to hear what we want to hear. It takes special effort to ferret out the negative positions.
  6. People are concerned that they will lack the needed resources. Does the manager really understand what the change will take? Time, space, training, physical resources, computer access, communication, contacts— the list is long.
  7. People revert to old habits when the pressure is off (or ON!). This is one of the reasons so many change efforts fail—follow-up and reinvigoration are almost always required in order to make a significant change “stick.” (Hint: This is one of the most frequent failures of managers! We love to change things—we hate to follow up!)

(Incidentally, be afraid, be very afraid, if there is no resistance to a major change—it may be that you aren’t picking up on the vibes!)

(For more on resistance to change, check “Overcoming Resistance to Change: Top Ten Reasons for Change Resistance” by A. J. Schuler, Psy.D.

“Don’t manage—lead change before you have to.”—Jack Welch

Assessing readiness for change

  1. Do key stakeholders understand and support the initiative?
  2. Are available financial and physical resources adequate?
  3. Are current staff skills and experience adequate?
  4. Does staff have access to the needed tools and information resources?
  5. Is effective sponsorship and project management in place?
  6. Are effective issue-management and decision-making processes in place?
  7. Are feedback and accountability systems sufficiently developed?
  8. Are there unacknowledged barriers to successful implementation?

(In workshops on change management, I usually play Amy Winehouse singing “Rehab” —the best example I know of unreadiness for change.)

If you score your group low on readiness for change, you will need to spend much more time in the preparation phase, basically the first four items on the list that follows.

The most-used term in the last election, and in every election, is CHANGE! Except by the incumbents.

Successfully leading change

Here is the model from John P. Kotter’s book Leading Change.

  1. Establish a sense of urgency.
  2. Create a guiding coalition.
  3. Develop a vision and strategy.
  4. Communicate the change vision.
  5. Empower broad-based action.
  6. Generate short-term wins.
  7. Consolidate gains and produce more change.
  8. Anchor new approaches in the culture.

(See “Communicating a Vision” by Kerri Harris from Leadership and Staffing, Lab Manager, 2/8/2010.)

Let’s take a fairly common and simple example—the introduction of a new piece of equipment.

  1. The purchase decision will probably provide you with most of the information you need to establish the need for the new piece of equipment. You will probably have costs, savings, improved accuracy, etc., to make a good case for the new equipment. Now the challenge is to convert your decision into a sense of urgency. Why us? Why now?
  2. Who should you use in your guiding coalition, and what do you want them to do? Opinion leaders, regardless of their position, are the people you want to involve in this group. Think through the different age cohorts on your staff and ensure that each is represented. (Note: Some of the “right” people may not be the easiest to work with!)
  3. How can anyone resist the new Whizbang 9300 integrated digital analyzer with Internet interface? Check the section above on overcoming resistance to change.
  4. The future state. The problem here is Pollyanna! Our human tendency, at least for us optimists, is to exaggerate the positives and underestimate the negatives! The partial answer is to be realistic in your assessment, assume more problems and challenges than you hope for, and get your staff, especially the pessimists, involved in plotting the future. They will have a better sense of what is going to be required, since they deal with the foibles and idiosyncrasies of day-to-day life with high-tech equipment—the Wizbang 9100. (Hint: This is a great technique for overcoming resistance.)
  5. One of the most difficult problems for managers is empowering their staff. For successful change, people must have the authority to make decisions and respond to on-site problems. They have to know what decision you would make in a similar situation and to feel strong in making important decisions. Your role is mentoring, coaching and encouraging those involved. “… top performers rapidly alternate between teaching and questioning or otherwise testing. Then, when required, they make immediate corrections.” (Influencer: The Power to Change Anything)
  6. The route to follow. This step is more involved than simply deciding where to park the new monster. Ensure that your waypoints cover the bases that came up in your assessment of the resistance to change, capitalize on small wins and achievements, keep the guiding coalition involved and change your implementation strategy as new information emerges. Use numbers, cost per test, improvements in accuracy and endorsements by users to make your case for the advantages of the new equipment.
  7.  Establish the change as “the way we do things around here!” Many change efforts fail because managers don’t take the time to enforce—and reinforce—the new process or piece of equipment or system. Then they wonder why people revert to old habits. Reward successful examples of people performing as you want them to, and sanction poor behavior. Challenge negativity.

Short checklist for change managers:

  • What exactly is the change you want to institute? Be specific.
  • Why is this change needed?
  • Why now?
  • Who should be in your guiding coalition?
  • Who will be affected?
  • How can you communicate the vision—the urgency?
  • What short-term wins can you expect?

When to get formal

To many readers, this sounds great for major changes, but they wonder what the trigger should be to signal when a change is big enough to warrant a formal approach. There is no simple answer. For example, it is unlikely you need a guiding coalition to rearrange the workbenches in the lab. (If you do, you have much bigger problems than can be solved here!) As general guidelines: if the change will affect more than a few people, if someone’s position is threatened, if the change has impact across several work units, if this is another in a string of recent changes or if you have had difficulty instituting change recently, then you should consider the more formal approach described here.

“For change efforts to succeed, managers and change agents must develop and use power skills.”—John P. Kotter

Unintended consequences

There will always be unintended consequences of any change. Things that you didn’t expect to happen as a result of the change. (Recall that when we increased the use of ethanol for fuel, food riots broke out in some areas of the world! I doubt that your changes will have a similar consequence.) So, good change managers expect such consequences, look for them, acknowledge them and try to ameliorate their impact; really good change managers take credit for unintended consequences when they are positive.

If you would like to review a PowerPoint presentation on this subject, check out Change.pdf

For further discussion on this topic, visit Ron on YouTube at


Kotter, John P. Leading Change, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, 1996.

Patterson, K., Joseph Grenny, David Maxfield and Ron McMillan, Influencer: The Power to Change Anything, McGraw-Hill, 2007.

Winehouse, Amy, “Rehab,” Back to Black, 

Schuler, A. J., “Overcoming Resistance to Change: Top Ten Reasons for Change Resistance,”