How to Build Support for Change During the 11th Hour

You may find yourself months into a project and realize that this major change is slowing to a halt. And if you don’t do something to turn things around, the project will fail. Sometimes there are good reasons why you couldn’t build support earlier. For instance, news of the merger may have had to be kept under wraps until the final agreement was signed. Or perhaps a fully-formed project was given to you from someone on high, and now it’s your job to bring it to life.

Or, perhaps things aren’t working due to something that you could have done differently. For example, let’s say you assumed that gaining support of stakeholders would never be an issue. You thought the idea was so good that everyone would rejoice when they learned about it. And you were wrong.

Whatever the reason, you are where you are, and you’ve got to build or rekindle support for this project right away.

There are a three 11th hour problems I’ve seen:

  1. We Rolled Out the Change and Nobody Noticed. We went live on April 1 and nothing happened. Two weeks later, and still nothing is happening.
  2. The Project Just Vanished.  Everything seemed to be going fine, and then talk of it moved farther and farther down the agenda. And today it is hardly ever mentioned.
  3. Ugly – Really Ugly – Resistance is Bringing Everything to a Stop. People are actively opposing this project. They may be doing things to sabotage it.

No matter which scenario fits, you need to sit down with people you trust and who have a handle on what’s really going on, and discuss a few important questions. And then, make sure you know what’s on “the list.”

Ask the Big Questions

What do we think will happen if we continue on the path we are on? How likely is it that we will be successful? And, why do we think that?

You probably said, “We’re going to fail.” “The project will go way over time and budget.” “We’ll only get some low hanging fruit from all this work.”  And then, very quietly, you may have added, “And this will be a serious blot on my own reputation and the reputation of my group.” This is serious stuff.

Is the problem technical, financial, priorities, or people?

  • If it is a technical problem – the wrong IT platform or equipment, buggy software, and so forth – it probably calls for a technical solution. People may not support the project because it gives them headaches to work on it.
  • If it is financial – this usually means that budget has been pulled away from this project or this change never did have an adequate budget in the first place. If that’s the case, you need to find the money. You’ll either have to get more money or take money from some other beloved projects.
  • If it is priorities – for instance, people are expected to work on this project while still treating everything else as a top priority – then you’ve got a leadership problem. You need to be willing to put other projects and routine tasks on the back burner for now. That is an act of courage in many organizations. But that’s why you are a leader, right?
  • If the problem is that people are not engaged or they are actively resistant, then you need to address those common human issues. (The remainder of this paper offers some suggestions to help you do just that.)

Asking the big questions out loud makes you and other leaders acknowledge that this is a crisis and must be dealt with like any crisis. And it will take lots of attention immediately. You can’t postpone work on the problem and expect it to wait until you have time to address it.

Answers to the big questions could be the wake-up call you need in order to get thing project back on track.

If you know the problem is technical, financial, or priorities — put this paper down right now and go fix the problem.

Of course, some 11th hour problems may be a combination of technical, financial, priorities, and people. If so, you need to address all four. So, simply getting people reinvested in the project without providing software to do the job, budget to pay for what they need, or relief from too much work and too little time means you’re still going to fail.

Sometimes you don’t know if the problem is financial, technical, priorities, or people. If so, then determine what’s on the list.

Find Out What’s on the List

Now that you know what you and your peers think, you need to find out what stakeholders are thinking and feeling regarding this change.  The list is a key tool in my own work with clients. I’ve got to know what’s on the list before I can offer any advice on how to build support for change. Often the things that appear on the list are difficult for people to say out loud. Chris Argyris (Organizational Traps 2002) refers to these items as undiscuss-ables.

The information on that so-called list is critical. Without that information, you’ll be trying to fix an 11th hour problem without knowing why the project is in trouble. It will be like trying to fly through a storm without radar. But with that information you can plan.

If you’d like to know how to find out what people involved in the change think and feel about the change itself and the people leading them, please read The Magic List. It is quick read and should give you the tools you need to start finding out people’s unspoken reactions to this change.

Once you know what’s on the list, you’ll need to figure out what it all means. (The Magic List can give you some pointers on how to do this.) But I think you’ll find that most of the responses will be in Level 1, 2, or 3:

  • Level 1: I don’t get it
  • Level 2: I don’t like it
  • Level 3: I don’t like you (or a little more accurately, I don’t trust you.

Your support – and resistance – comes from those three areas. In other words, people either understand what you are talking about or they don’t. They either are excited, committed, engaged in the change – or they are scared out of their wits. Either they trust the people leading them on this project or they fear that the clowns are running the circus.

Once you know what’s on the list, you can begin to apply what you know.

We Rolled Out the Change and Nobody Noticed

The problem could be that no one was really on board and they were just placating you by going through the motions. They had hoped that the project would just vanish, but, alas, you went ahead and rolled it out.

Here’s where the list can come in handy. The fix could be simple. People may not know why the change is needed or what the project itself is all about (Level 1). It could be that new people have joined the team since this project began, or perhaps older employees may have forgotten why this project ever mattered. (Many of the old TQM quality improvement efforts died simply because it took too long to get things moving.)

As you look at the data on the list, see if people see (and feel) why a change is needed. If they don’t seem to know why this project is important, then you need to make a Compelling Case for Change. If you feel like you’ve already done that, you may be right, but you’ll need to do it again. Here is a link to an article Making a Compelling Case for Change.

If the list shows that people don’t know what they are supposed to do or how to do it, then listen to that advice, and provide direction or training or whatever else you think will help people roll-up-their-sleeves and get to work. It may sound simple, but just ask people what they need in order to do the job. You don’t have to be Solomon and have all the right answers. Good questions work too.

If the list reveals lots of fear (Level 2), then you need to actively engage people in addressing those issues. You don’t need to have the answers, but you do need to be open and curious. One very good question to ask, “Is there a way that we can move ahead with this project that will increase job security?” So the issue might not be job security, it might be safety, or fear that this change will just add lots of paperwork to their jobs, or something else. This simple questioning gets people involved in changes that affect them. They get a chance to influence parts of the change that matter most to them.

To learn more about dealing with Level 2 issues, read How to Work Effectively with Level 2 Resistance.

But, what if they don’t trust you (Level 3)? Lick your wounds and then read the list carefully. What is it they don’t like about your leadership on this project. Maybe they see you (and/or the executive team) as flavor-of-the-month leaders, or duplicitous, or out-of-touch, or too concerned about currying political favor from above while sacrificing those who report to you.

You don’t have to agree with your own assessment of your leadership qualities, but you do need to take their Level 3 concerns seriously. You cannot preach to them or say, “Trust me, I’m not a crook.” The only game in town is to begin to demonstrate that this time you are acting differently. You might even say, “I know the world on the street is that I am too quick to move onto some other project. I want to demonstrate to you that this time is different.  In fact, within the next two weeks here is what you can expect from me. And for the next two months, you can expect to see A, B, and C. “ And then after you make those promises, deliver so that you confound people’s expectations. You want them to say to themselves, “Whoa. Maybe she is serious this time.”

Level 3 does not turn around easily. Sad to say that trust is difficult to build and easy to destroy. To learn more about working with Level 3, read How to Work with Level 3 Resistance.

Resistance to Change – Why it Matters and What to do About it

The Project Just Vanished 

The suggestions for We Rolled Out the Change and Nobody Noticed apply here as well.

In addition, there are some basic things that leaders of successful changes do to keep projects alive so they achieve real results. Read how to Sustain Commitment to Change. It covers seven vital, but often neglected, tasks that you must perform. Those seven items are:

  • Leadership (that is, people know that you are 100% behind this change)
  • Clear Contract (so that leaders all down the line know what’s expected)
  • Beware of scope creep – so that the project doesn’t keep growing like a blob of goo from 1950s sci-fi movie
  • Speed. There is no magic correct speed, but the leader needs to sense how fast this project can move safely
  • Ownership. People need to feel ownership.
  • Resources. People have the tools they need to do the job.
  • Rewards. The rewards are linked to actions that support the new goals.

23 Great ideas to Help Keep Change Alive is a rather long article that includes tips from people like you who worked on changes that actually succeeded. The article is filled with real examples of what they did to keep the change moving.

Ugly – Really Ugly – Resistance is Bringing Everything to a Stop.

This is a big deal. Read the list carefully. There are probably many strong Level 2 fears and Level 3 issues of distrust. You have no choice: these issues must be addressed.

Tips for Getting Back on Track This article covers some of things I’ve addressed in this white paper, but includes a few more tips as well.

Unless you are experienced working in situations in which people are wildly resistant – don’t go there alone. There are too many pitfalls and too many places where you can inadvertently make matters worse. My strong suggestion is get help. Here are some places you might look:

  • It might be time to reconnect with a mentor or leader in a position like yours who just seems to handle resistance well. Ask him or her for advice and counsel. One meeting will not be sufficient. Arrange regular conversations. If you let more than a week elapse between calls, you may be waiting too long.
  • Your coach. If you’ve got a good executive coach, see if this person can advise you on working with widespread resistance.
  •  A consultant you know is savvy about how to rebuild trust and support.
  • A cross-functional and cross-level group of no more than a dozen people who can advise you on getting things back on track.

Whatever you do, expect that some things will work and others won’t. Learn from all these experiences and improve your game.

This blog is a great placed to post your own ideas that you’ve seen build support for change even in the 11th hour.


A special thanks to members of my change group on Facebook. Your support and ideas helped me frame this article and move in some directions I might not have thought of. I appreciate your help. Kathy Bennett, Woody Berzins, Lon Blumenthal, Joe Brodnicki, Alex Brandt, Catalyst Consulting, Michael Chirichello, William Jackson, Laurie Mendelow, Leo Reid, Sharon Richmond, Heather Stagle, and Tom Stratton. And my apologies if I inadvertently left someone off this list.

Next Steps to Consider

If you are interested in being part of the Facebook group, please visit and consider “liking” the page.

Quick Links to Resources Mentioned in this Article:

© 2012 Rick Maurer

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