Senior management buy-in: overcoming resistance to change

by 02 Sep 2008

HR professionals often have an uphill battle when it comes to securing management support for HR management systems. In the first of a two-part article, Asta Developments Michael McCullen looks at some of the more common mistakes in gaining the support of senior management

When considering the implementation of a HR management system, the topic of senior management buy-in often raises its head. This is common not only in situations where a company is changing a software system but also where any fundamental change in company practice is involved.

As such, the theories and explanations below can equally apply to HR initiatives such as change to company processes, initiatives to ensure staff retention and effective recruitment.

Those with even the slightest knowledge of what is involved in such a change accept that senior management buy-in is important. Without this, there will be no investment in the first place, and if there is no management commitment to adopt a new system, it will not be used and will not yield the expected benefits. It’s common sense then. Or is it?

In most organisations, management is competent and will have made at least some basic calculations about the expected returns on the investment in terms of additional revenues, cost savings, operational improvements and improved decision making.

So does the fact that a new HR initiative is being considered indicate there is management buy-in? It indicates that management has bought into the idea that the new system can lead to certain desirable improvements for the business which justify the investment.

However, problems often arise after the decision to acquire a new system has been taken. Two opposing forces are at work: first, resistance to change from within the organisation; and second, management commitment to overcome that resistance and realise the expected benefits. When people involved in implementing a new system refer to management buy-in, they are often referring to the commitment from management to make sure there is adequate investment in time and resources to overcome any resistance from within.

Common management mistakes

There a number of common management mistakes that either accentuate or result in resistance.

Abdication: Management appoints a project manager for the implementation and then turns its attention to other matters assuming that all will be well,leaving the project manager to tackle internal resistance – often with no specific budget, resources or even authority to do so.

Poor communication: Management believes that implementing the new system will make everyone conform to a new set of procedures, (ranging from planning and managing customer projects to the way in which expenses and time sheets are submitted and approved) – but they fail to involve the people in drawing up those procedures.

Failure to tackle non-conformists: Often management knows there are one or two laggards or dissenters and relies upon the introduction of a new system to bring them into line rather than tackling them head on.

Weak management: The new system will introduce and enforce new processes. For example, a new approval process for resource allocations might be introduced such that team leaders can no longer pick the individuals they prefer but instead have to make requests to a resource manager. This imposition of a new process can be seen as a backdoor way of changing existing authority structures. Management sometimes attempts change this way to avoid tackling powerful “expert”individuals who are resistant to change.

Lack of clear objectives: Management has recognised the potential return on investment that can be achieved from the new system but has not explained this to the project manager responsible for implementing the system. This leaves someone in charge of ensuring there is a successful implementation who has no clear reasons why the system was chosen and what the objectives are. This provides them with no arguments to persuade colleagues it is the right thing to do.

Poorly specified solution: Management believes that the software supplier will implement the complete solution and fails to appreciate that the organisation and its key personnel are a vital part of that solution. So the supplier is asked to specify how the new system should be used with little consideration for existing procedures, whether these are adequate or should be improved, and whether the system should be adapted to meet the organisation’s requirements. The result is a solution with no buy-in from staff that does not attempt to address the organisation’s specific needs.

Failure to anticipate resistance: Management does not recognise there will be resistance to the new system and fails to revise a plan to overcome this. Management believes that by having a system implemented by a vendor and by providing staff with product training everything will be fine. Management may even congratulate itself for implementing the system without adhering to the recommendations of the system vendor to allocate some budget and internal resource to deal with change management issues.

The chances of completing a successful implementation can be seriously hampered by any one of these mistakes. Making multiple mistakes without taking corrective action is almost consigning the implementation of change to failure.

Fear of the expert

A special mention must be given to one of the greatest threats to any organisational change within a company – fear of the “expert”.

In some organisations there are experts who command a great deal of respect and influence among their colleagues. They may be managers or people with a high level of hands-on experience within a chosen discipline. Often they have been at the company a long time and have achieved a level of seniority. They will most likely have achieved a degree of success in the past, which was visible to management,using older systems. They can seriously undermine any new implementation if they do not support it.

In a typical scenario, senior management is overly dependant upon such an individual, is concerned they might leave if they do not get their own way, and fearing they will object to the new system management,chooses not to consult them or to ignore them.

When confronted with this situation, an “expert”might object to the new system for the several reasons including:

• to demonstrate their power over senior management and, thereby, preserve their status and reputation with colleagues.

• they are considered to be an expert with the current system or procedure and fear this expert status will be lost if they are forced to adopt a new and unfamiliar method of working.

• they were not consulted about the new system and therefore decide to make a stand, in their view on behalf of all staff, by rejecting a system which they were not consulted about.

Failure to engage with these knowledgeable individuals to harness their experience and help them to embrace change results in them being allowed to continue to work in their own way, using the old system. This is the worst of all outcomes for the business,which now has two systems running in parallel with some people embracing the new technology and methods and those loyal to the powerful “expert”using the old system. Both have to be supported and maintained and often there is no communication between the two – resulting in fragmented processes.

If these “experts” are involved in the process of selecting and reviewing a new system early in the decision-making process they can be a great ally and a positive force for change through their influence over other staff.

There may be instances where they still object to the new system, but having done everything possible to involve these individuals and having demonstrated to other staff that the views of the “expert”have been considered, management can afford to take a tougher stance with them if they fail to comply with new systems and processes.

Management responsibility

Like it or not, the management of the business is responsible for all of these potential problems. It is not responsible for causing the problems. It is, however,management’s responsibility to ensure that resistance to change is considered, planned for and dealt with in order to maximise the chances of success of a new implementation. Having an understanding about the theory and some of the common pitfalls will help.

In the next issue of Human Resources magazine, we look at the ten steps to success in overcoming resistance to change and securing senior management buy-in.

Michael McCullen is managing director of Asta Development, a UK-based project management software firm. Additional editing and reviewing by Graham Dix, business manager: resource and project management,AEC Systems.