50 Reasons Why We Cannot Change

By | 12/03/2021

I recently stumbled across the story of E.F. Borisch. He was a product manager for Milwaukee Gear Company – a middle-size gearbox manufacturer in the US. Apparently frustrated with the level of progress in his own company, he sat down and wrote the article Fifty Reasons Why We Cannot Change which was published in the journal Product Engineering on July 20, 1959. Exactly – that’s more than 60 years ago! But if you are working in change or communications (or in both), you will be hearing parts of this list every day.

  1. We’ve never done it before.
  2. Nobody else has ever done it.
  3. It has never been tried before.
  4. We tried it before.
  5. Another company/person tried it before.
  6. We’ve been doing it this way for 25 years.
  7. It won’t work in a small company.
  8. It won’t work in a large company.
  9. It won’t work in our company.
  10. Why change—it’s working OK.
  11. The boss will never buy it.
  12. It needs further investigation
  13. Our competitors are not doing it.
  14. It’s too much trouble to change.
  15. Our company is different.
  16. The ad department says it can’t be done.
  17. Sales department says it can’t be done.
  18. The service department won’t like it.
  19. The janitor says it can’t be done.
  20. It can’t be done.
  21. We don’t have the money.
  22. We don’t have the personnel.
  23. We don’t have the equipment.
  24. The union will scream.
  25. It’s too visionary.
  26. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
  27. It’s too radical a change.
  28. It’s beyond my responsibility.
  29. It’s not my job.
  30. We don’t have the time.
  31. It will obsolete other procedures.
  32. Customers won’t buy it.
  33. It’s contrary to policy.
  34. It will increase overhead.
  35. The employees will never buy it.
  36. It’s not our problem.
  37. I don’t like it.
  38. You’re right, but…
  39. We’re not ready for it.
  40. It needs more thought.
  41. Management won’t accept it.
  42. We can’t take the chance.
  43. We’d lose money on it.
  44. It takes too long to pay out.
  45. We’re doing it all right as it is.
  46. It needs committee study.
  47. Competition won’t like it.
  48. It needs sleeping on.
  49. It won’t work in this department.
  50. It’s impossible.

Fast Company published this list in its very first issue in 1993. 20 years later, Fast Company founder Bill Taylor reflected the list in the Harvard Business Review, concluding that “The more things change, it seems, the more the objections to change remain the same.” It’s an inspiring article that also tries to find a way out by developing five principles to counter typical resistance to change:

  1. Originality – Avoid tunnel vision and try viewing your organization from new perspectives.
  2. Breaking with the history without demeaning it – So reinterpret the past to learn for the future.
  3. Encourage a sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo – People need to feel an urgency to change. For this, they need to understand why the current ways of working aren’t sustainable.
  4. “Humbition” among leaders – Taylor merges ambition and humility and urges leaders to be bold in what they are aiming at while realistically understanding that they don’t have all the answers yet, thereby creating a feeling of shaping the future together.
  5. Consistency – Although change may be disrupting, the underlying values and beliefs need to be consistent and leaders need to highlight overarching consistent principles as unifying force.

I do feel inspired whenever returning to both pieces, the initial list of 50 reasons not to change (especially when colleagues keep citing their special situations and circumstances and why that impacts their case for change), and the resulting change principles. But at the same time, these five principles (as well as the many additional principles circulating in the field) very rarely feature in change projects. In fact, I believe there is a certain ambiguity in them. On the one hand, you cannot overcome resistance without applying and enforcing these principles. On the other hand, resistance to change as expressed in the list of 50 above, often prevents these principles from being applied in the first place and even limits the potential for effective change management. Often it is then the “unusual” circumstances that create a true chance for real change – a particularly progressive CEO, a spontaneous change in the environment (such as Covid 19…), a takeover that creates motivation for change…

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