ASAE and the Center 2006: Overcoming resistance to change

As I mentioned in this post, my group in today's open space session at ASAE and the Center's annual conference tackled how to overcome resistance to change when it comes to meetings. We started out looking at where the resistance comes from, and it comes from all sides: From attendees, from facilities (and, from the facility side, the meeting planners), and the organizations themselves, particularly the executive directors.

Why is there so much resistance to trying something new? We explored whether it comes from being because "doing what we've always done" is comfortable, or because it's guaranteed some level of success based on history, or because someone has a sense of ownership that they just can't get over. General consensus seemed to be that the latter was the strongest factor, though we agreed all come into play. Instead of looking at what would bring the maximum value to each individual learner, we get stuck thinking our way is the best way because, darn it, we just know it is.

Another factor is that we tend to hop over the "why" of the meeting and jump straight into the "how" of getting it done. One guy in our group gave a great example of how one organization overcame resistance to change. It was in the middle of a big shift and, while the senior execs had bought into it, the middle management had not. So for the leadership conference, instead of the usual day with the organization leaders speaking, then some golf, then more speaking, then a social event, they did something different. They assigned seats instead of letting everyone sit with the people they already knew. Then they turned off all the lights, and the participants were encouraged to tell the leadership what they wanted from them. How powerful is that?

Then they brought in a speaker to help facilitate the rest of the process by talking about understanding where people are coming from, what their perspectives are, and how what you might think you know about where they're coming from might not be the whole story. To illustrate the point, he had everyone take boxes and write what they know about their colleagues on the outside of the box. On the inside, each individual wrote about things that no one knows about them (sing in their church's choir, run marathons, whatever). The organization orders boxes for all their employees, and everyone now keeps their box on their desk to remind people to understand where they're coming from when being asked to do something.

Of course, some people were irritated at the whole process, to say the least. The most powerful point of the story, for me, was when this guy said that the leader of the organization, who was not entirely comfortable with the process himself, told those who wouldn't go along that perhaps they wouldn't be a fit for where the company was going.

Some tips we came up with:

  • Experience new ideas and ways of doing things yourself, so you can tell first-hand how it works

  • Talk with all your partners, including vendors, to find out what they're doing with other clients. "It's free consulting," said one person.

  • Break risk down to smaller, easy steps. Instead of going whole hog into open space-style interactivity, why not do something simple like ask people to take a minute and talk about a point with their neighbor? Or making the keynote available at comfortable areas around the lobby (as ASAE and the Center did for its general session—to much applause at this year's meeting); or doing a podcast instead of a webinar?

  • Look at other facilities, like zoos and museums, as sort of learning labs. Where do people congregate? What areas cause people to avoid each other? What gets them talking with each other? "I've gotten some of my best ideas at the zoo," one person said.

    To the last point, I brought up something that works well for kids: Asking for a pony when what you really want is a hamster. You know, soften them up so when the easier thing comes up, it sounds like a great compromise. The others didn't think this would fly with associations, that a baby-step approach would work better. But at least it got a laugh.

    I got my big "ah ha!" moment after one participant talked about the best learning experience she ever had, which came about totally by accident when a popular session overflowed into the hallway, and they commandeered a nearby room and had the session piped in. It was totally organic, she said, but it was amazing. My brain clicked on the difference between organic and engineered, and how difficult it is to let go of the control and let people design what will work best for themselves by themselves. Scary. Risky. Must resist. Especially in an association environment, giving up that control almost feels like giving up the association's reason for existing, because if they can do it on their own, what do they need you for?

    Others in my group pointed out that they loved those keynotes, and listening and learning from experts. But the real learning takes place after, not during, those sessions, when they talk about what they learned with colleagues, and take time to think about how they can use it, and learn how others plan to use it. There's where associations can come in, by creating spaces and places that facilitate the assimilation of the learning.

    It was a fascinating discussion all the way around, and I not only got to explore an interesting, difficult topic that has gnawed at me for eons, but I also had the chance to get to know a few of the people in the session a bit, which doesn't happen usually.

    Anyway, signing off for the night. More on the conference when I'm a little more coherent.

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