How We Dealt with Resistance to Change

If you’ve got a conflict you’re trying to work through as a team, or if you’re leading a change that’s encountering some resistance, we invite you to think about resistance as a resource and the five levels. Those tools are like a skeleton key that unlocks change. It’s incredibly satisfying to break through a tough conflict and find a solution no one had thought about before. Using these techniques, we can reliably find those breakthroughs, and so can you. Give it a try, and let us know how it goes!

In a case of “drinking our own champagne,” we applied the tools we teach for dealing with resistance to change to a real conflict on our team. Peter wanted to make a big change to our WordPress theme. Richard had some strong resistance to that change. Something had to give. Listen in to see how we used that resistance as a resource to come up with a breakthrough solution.

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Episode transcription

Peter Green

There’s this term in product development that goes “eating our own dogfood.” It means we’re using our own product in real life. Kind of testing it out. It’s a term that I’ve always found puzzling. Like, who refers to their product as dogfood, unless you’re Purina, I guess, and then are they really eating it to test it out? Anyway, at Adobe, we modified that term to say we were “drinking our own champagne” when we used our own products. That was a little better, even though I don’t drink. Richard, you’re a bit of a wine connoisseur, though, so maybe that term makes sense to you.

Richard Lawrence

I’d certainly rather have champagne than dog food, especially as somebody who lives in Denver and drives by the Purina factory on I-70.  It doesn’t make you hungry.

So, today we’re going to share an instance of us drinking our own champagne when it comes to change management. Back in episode 35, we shared a sort of Cliff’s Notes overview of our 1/2 day workshop on change leadership. It draws from two sources, coach Dale Emery’s idea of using resistance as a resource, and Eli Goldratt, of the Theory of Constraints; his Levels of Resistance.


Recently, we used this exact approach to get unstuck in a disagreement we had about our website. When we launched the Humanizing Work Company, Richard coded up a WordPress theme that had a really strong focus on beautiful typography, but not a lot of flexibility for how graphics could be integrated. Recently, I wanted to do some graphic-heavy pages, and it was really difficult or maybe impossible for me to do them using the current theme.


So Peter was strongly advocating that we get a different off -the -shelf theme that could do what he wanted. From his perspective, updating a theme on the site would be pretty straightforward and would unlock a lot of new capability to do the marketing things he wanted to do. From my perspective, here be dragons. So, we were stuck, and neither one of us really owns the decision, it’s a collective decision. Angie probably could have pulled rank on all of us as our head of marketing and made a call, but we sensed there was a better way to break the conflict, so we used the model we teach.


In this episode, we’re going to repost the content from episode 35 so you’re familiar with it, then we’re gonna share how we applied it to the website conflict. But first, this show is a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work company.

Humanizing Work exists to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work. To that end, we do training and coaching in three areas:

  1. We help leaders lead empowered teams and individuals more effectively.
  2. We help product people turn their ideas into good visions, experiments, and backlogs.
  3. We help teams collaborate better to produce meaningful outcomes on complex work.

If you or your organization would benefit from better leadership, better product management, or better collaboration, and if you find our vision for human-centric work compelling, visit the contact page on and schedule a conversation with us.

Now, here’s the rebroadcast of the content from episode 35, and we’ll be back right after that to share how we used it.

[Note:  The following is a transcription of episode 35]


Today’s question comes up in nearly every workshop, coaching conversation and engagement we have of any kind with leaders, managers, coaches, Scrum Masters, really everyone who is trying to improve anything encounters some resistance.

And the question is usually framed something like, how do you overcome resistance to change?


I don’t think resistance to change exists. People don’t resist change, they resist particular changes. And they do it for reasons that make sense to them. Some people just come up with reasons faster, or more comprehensively.


This reminds me of something that Dan Heath talks about in his book Switch, which he co- authored with his brother Chip. He says that when people don’t like a change, they think of it as change. But when they do like a change, like “I chose to buy the new phone or get a new car or to get married,” They don’t think of it as change, but as a choice.

So, for most of us, the word change has this negative association, and the word choice has a positive association.


That reminds me of a thing I think about whenever I’m thinking about resistance to change, and ultimately what convinced me it didn’t exist, which is, think about the person you know who is most resistant to change.

I can think of family members and friends, and pick out any one of them, and now imagine that person winning the lottery. They’re going to change some things, happily and readily. And that same person probably made all kinds of other changes, like upgraded their phone or got a new car, or painted their kitchen.

So they change all the time. They just don’t experience those things as change. So they’re not resistant to change as change. There’s something about some changes that’s different from other changes.


And so when we’re feeling that resistance, sometimes it’s helpful to shift our viewpoint from, here’s another example of this thing that we call a truism, like “everybody resists change” or “people resist change” to “these people are resisting this proposed change.”

And then that can change our response, or to use a more positive language, that gives us new choices in how to respond.


I found good insights about how to handle this from two sources. One, Coach Dale Emery, and another is Eli Goldratt, the creator of the Theory of Constraints. Dale has a great article we’ll link to in the show notes called Resistance as a Resource.

And he talks about how we can’t make people do things. But we can sometimes change a point of view. Theirs, ours, or both. And the way we get there is by treating resistance as a source of information. When somebody pushes back on our change, they’re telling us something. In improv terms, they’re offering us something, and we can take that offer or not, and it can be information about any number of things.

They may be telling us something about history and context, like “We tried that before,” or “Oh, so and so is not going to like that.” They may be telling us something about themselves, some fear or concern they have. They might be telling you something about you. Maybe this kind of proposal can’t come from somebody in your position.

There’s all sorts of things. The key point, though, is get curious about what is this resistance telling me? Now to help answer that question we got a nice tool from Eli Goldratt who talks about layers or levels of resistance, and over the years he shared several different formulations of it. The one that we find most useful is five levels, or five layers.

At the bottom level we have disagreement about the nature or extent of the problem. Like sometimes the resistance you’re getting is people don’t believe there’s a problem or don’t think the problem is serious enough to change. or opportunity to change is big enough.

So these are things like, “It’s fine. We don’t need to deal with it. That’s not an issue. Things are great as they are. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” You know, all those kinds of statements of resistance you might get. They’re not exactly resisting change. They’re telling you, “There doesn’t seem to be enough of a reason to make this change,” so maybe learn what they see and share with them what you see and see if you can get aligned. And the levels of resistance become levels of agreement, by the way.

Level two, disagreement about the effectiveness of the solution. This is resistance along the lines of, “Yeah, there’s a problem, but your solution won’t fix it.” We actually don’t get a lot of level 2 resistance, because your solution is probably the best conceived part of your whole proposal. If the problem really exists, you probably did work out a way to solve the problem.

More often we get level 3 resistance, which is “It might work, but there are negative side effects.” And I find the people in my life that I think of as most resistant to change are often people who are just really good at level three.

They can come up with all the things that will go wrong if we make this change. Like, “Sure it’ll work, but somebody will be upset, and we’ll run out of money, and the company will go out of business, and what about this, and what about that?” I find it really useful to, once I know I’ve got somebody who’s good at level three, engage them early when I’m thinking about a proposal, and ask them to help me brainstorm all the things that could go wrong, and then ask them to help me figure out ways to keep those things from going wrong.

They’re sharing those things, by the way, because they care. They want you collectively in some way to be successful, otherwise they would just silently sabotage your proposal. And they’re sharing this to give you a chance to make it better, so you can accept that offer and engage them in making it better. So that’s level three.

Level four is there are obstacles to implementation of the change. I like hearing level fours because that means they’re on board with making the change, but it’s, “Well, we don’t have budget for that,” or “We don’t have time to make that kind of change.” Those are probably the most common level fours.

And in those cases, they may be right, or you may need to learn something about where resources could come from to make the change, or maybe you know, and they don’t. And so again, you can change a point of view and align around that.

And then finally level five is doubt about the collaboration of others. Level five resistance sounds like “Management won’t let us do it.” It’s somebody outside the room. And there’s really two claims built into a level five objection. The first claim is somebody outside the room won’t be on board. And the second claim is we need them to, and we can test both of those. We could go try to get them on board, go back down to level one and build up their agreement the whole way. Or we could say, “Do we really need them on board? Maybe we can run a safe experiment within our scope of control and build some credibility to then include them in a larger change.”

So that’s levels one through five. Problem, solution, side effect, obstacles, others, and having those levels or layers of resistance in mind helps me when I’m getting curious about the resistance that’s coming at me to say what am I hearing here and how can I respond to it at the correct level, so that I’m having the same conversation with somebody that they’re trying to have with me instead of talking past them. Where they say, “there’s no problem,” and I reply with, “but my solution to that non problem is great.”


So I particularly like the idea of thinking of the levels as levels of alignment, and making sure that I’ve done that in order, especially if it’s kind of a more formal situation, like we’re in a group considering a change, and we want to make sure that we’re aligned at each level before we move on. It’s really easy to skip a level and start talking past each other. So that’s one of my favorite parts of that model is thinking of it, not necessarily as levels of resistance, but potentially levels of alignment.

[Back to today’s episode]

So applying this to the website conflict, let’s start with the five levels, then talk more broadly about using resistance as a resource and changing perspectives. Where on the five levels do you think the actual resistance was located, Richard?


Well, it’s a little tricky to reassemble this in retrospect because I’m so familiar with the five levels, I can think of examples at every level that I might have had, but if I think back to where was my actual resistance-  what kept me from moving forward on the changes you were requesting, I think it was mostly level 3, side effect’s, and level 4, obstacles to implementation.  So, at level 3, I was concerned that a new theme might make the editing experience better for you but would probably make the site look worse in ways that would bother me and I kind of care a lot about certain things in design that not everybody does, so I was a little bit like “Well I guess I could do this, but then I’m gonna be sad every time I see my site.  So, that’s solidly level 3.  Those side effects.  This might work for you but it would have these other negative effects I wouldn’t like.  And then, at Level 4, was all of my concerns about how much time it would take to make everything we’d built over 3 years on our original theme including all these different plug-ins that we’d adapted to, look and function right on a new theme, and I’d been through enough of these software projects where you’re rewriting something or you’re changing a platform or component that all of the fear around that and all the things I’d seen at my clients was coming in at level 4 and it just felt like this is gonna be all sorts of pain during and after.

What else do you notice about the five levels, Peter?


Well, it was interesting to me as we started talking about this in the moment, that your objections were all at level 3 and up, mostly. And we’ve kind of got this ongoing narrative on our team that Richard’s the copy guy and Peter’s the visual guy and that’s probably far too extreme where you have some great interest in visuals and I have some great interest in copy and typography.  But I had sort of extended that narrative to just assume that you didn’t see the problem as a problem at all. Like, Na, we don’t need hero images on a landing page.  People should just read text, because that’s what I like to do—and so I had way overextended that story to be inaccurate.  And so, for me, it was a good reminder to build alignment from the ground up.  If you think of sort of the levels of resistance as a pyramid. Like, the base of the pyramid is “Ddo we agree on the problem, and that the problem is an important problem to solve?” And once we went there, I realized Oh, no, we actually do agree about that.


But we were able to narrow the problem a bit.  I think I was assuming that the problem was you just wanted to make pages with the visual editor that had visuals everywhere and our site was going to look like this copy and paste thing and when we got to “What do we actually care about here?” the problem got a little narrower and actually easier to solve.


Ya..  We did a little bit of like the one sentence of Simon Sinek’s books that’s really useful which is the title, “Start With Why”  I don’t mean to bash Simon—that book’s just way longer than it needs to be.  It’s an important concept.  He does a nice job of illustrating it. We weren’t really starting with why this was important to me, and there was like a specific thing that I was trying to accomplish on specific landing pages. It wasn’t as broad as it could have been.


And so, we found a solution to that as we worked up from the bottom, and we were able to break through a little bit, because we didn’t just work through all the levels, but we also got information about each other and what was important to each of us as we worked through, so to Dale Emory’s bit about resistance as a resource, as we got into that, I understood more about what was important to you, and why you thought that particular solution would work and you understood what I valued on the website and some of my concerns about making changes on the website on top of everything else we do because, of course none of us is a fulltime web developer—we do a lot of other things.  And so once we have all of that information out there, we were able to come up with a breakthrough solution around me creating some widgets for the kind of visuals that you really valued and showing you how to use them and making them reusable and putting that into our current template.  And so we got the landing pages we wanted, I got to keep the typography I liked, and not have to overhaul the whole website, and I don’t think we would have got there if we hadn’t gone step by step using these tools.


No, no.  In fact, it wasn’t until we decided to actually address this and use the tools, because this had been something that was an ongoing conflict—sort of simmering.  Over and over it would come up.  And we finally said, “Look, we need to fix this.  Let’s fix it.  And then using these tools, helped us fix it.

If you’ve got a conflict you’re trying to work through as a team, or if you’re leading a change that’s encountering some resistance, like I was, we invite you to think about resistance as a resource and the five levels. Those tools are like a skeleton key that unlocks change. It’s incredibly satisfying to break through a tough conflict and find a solution no one had thought about before. Using these techniques, we can reliably find those breakthroughs, and so can you. Give it a try, and let us know how it goes!

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