Beckhard and Harris' Change Equation

Overcoming Resistance to Change

Is the change desirable enough to covercome resistance? Beckhard and Harris's Change Equation will show you.

Can people see that the alternative would be better?

© iStockphoto/mikdam

Traditionally, "change projects" have often been driven by technology implementations or upgrades, with business processes and working practices being changed to fit in with the new system.

In today's turbulent economy, however, change is just as likely to be driven by something else: a long-established competitor unexpectedly going bust, for example, or your bank calling in a loan, or a layer of middle management being made redundant.

Whatever the situation, when change looms on the horizon, chances are that you'll hear things like:

  • "I can't believe that restructuring the sales force is really going to increase sales."
  • "Upgrading the system is such a disruption. I just don't see why we need to go through all that work."
  • "Our current system isn't great, but what's so wonderful about the new one? How will that be any better?"
  • "I know that Corascon going under should be good news for us, but I can't work out what I should be doing about it."

With comments like these flying around, how will you get everyone to agree with the changes you have in mind? After all, you can't do this without them!

This is where Beckhard and Harris' Change Equation can help. In this article, we'll look at this equation, and see how you can use it to roll out successful change in the future.

Explaining the Change Equation

Richard Beckhard and Rubin Harris first published their change equation in 1977 in "Organizational Transitions: Managing Complex Change," and it's still useful today. It states that for change to happen successfully, the following statement must be true:

Dissatisfaction x Desirability x Practicality > Resistance to Change

Beckhard, Richard; Harris, Reuben T., Organizational Transitions: Managing Complex Change, 2nd, © 1987. Electronically reproduced by permission of Pearson Education, Inc., Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

This seems to be a simple statement, but it's surprisingly powerful when used to structure a case for change. Let's define each element, and look at why you need it:

  • Dissatisfaction – Your team has to feel dissatisfied with the current situation before a successful change can take place. Without dissatisfaction, no one will likely feel very motivated to change.

    Dissatisfaction could include competition pressures ("We're losing market share") or workplace pressures ("Our sales processing software is crashing at least once a week"). Dissatisfaction can be any factor that makes people uncomfortable with the current situation.

  • Desirability – The proposed solution must be attractive, and people need to understand what it is. If your team doesn't have a clear vision of what things will be like after the change, and why things will be better, then they probably won't be willing to work to deliver it. The clearer and more detailed you make this vision, the more likely it is that your team will want to agree with the change and move forward.
  • Practicality – Your team must be convinced that the change is realistic and executable.
  • Resistance to change – Resistance to change includes people's beliefs in the limits of the change ("A new system won't fit with our unusual business process"), stubbornness toward any change ("I don't want to have to learn how to use a new system"), and general inertia or lack of interest at the beginning.

And because there's a multiplicative relationship between Dissatisfaction, Desirability and Practicality, if one element is missing, that variable will have a value of zero – meaning that this whole side of the equation will equal zero.

How to Use the Tool

Beckhard and Harris' change equation is most useful as

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