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Rope-A-Dope: How change leaders get knocked out

female boxer

When leading change, leaders should be on the alert for people who feel change will adversely affect their power, prestige or both.

Aiming to knock out change initiatives, these people will use Machiavellian techniques — techniques whose effectiveness is evidenced by the 75 percent failure rate of transformational change initiatives.

The most effective technique is The Rope-A-Dope. The name comes from the strategy Muhammad Ali used to beat George Foreman in 1974. Ali leaned against the ropes and let Foreman wail away punching him. Foreman wore himself out. In the eighth round, Ali came off the ropes and knocked Foreman flat.

To stymie change, The Rope-A-Dope is used by resisters who continually ask the change leader to do additional analysis to validate the benefits and costs of a change initiative. This continual analysis begins to wear down the change leader.

By the eighth study, the resisters step forward and knock out the change leaders by presenting to executive management all of the time their team — not the change leader’s team — has spent studying the initiative, which, they say, is taking away from time needed to meet their financial objectives for the year. Worst yet, the craftiest rope-a-dopers claim that if it were not for them intervening, the initiative would have been a disaster for the company – and they should be put in charge of it. Talk about flipping the script!

To combat The Rope-A-Dope, change leaders may use this two-step approach:

Step outside of the ring.

Stop throwing punches at the evasive and grab hold of the definitive. For example, when I first became senior vice president of operations at Medtronic, each business unit had its own supply chain. We saw that we could reduce cost by more than 25 percent and improve delivery performance by optimizing the supply chains, especially since the finished products were being delivered to the same market areas.

When I raised the question of us doing so, the business leader in opposition asked that a study be done to validate the benefits. Someone whispered in my ear that six previous studies had been done. Spotting The Rope-A-Dope, I asked what percentage of the benefits was in question. The response was “about 20 percent or so.” I immediately said, “Let’s go get the 80 and then do the study on the remaining 20.” Executive leadership nodded in agreement and the change was on. I didn’t have to throw another punch.

Bring another person into the ring.

Engage someone in corporate accounting to keep track of the benefits as you move forward with implementing the change. Even though executive management has approved the initiative, resisters will still try to use The Rope-A-Dope by continually questioning the benefits you are getting. They will come up with their own numbers.

To beat them to the punch, have someone totally independent and objective become the “single source of the truth.” Someone in corporate accounting is the best person, because that group has to roll up all of the numbers for the company and validate them through an external auditor. By getting corporate accounting involved, resisters will have to engage them instead of you.

Always be on the lookout for The Rope-A-Dope, the most effective and often used change-resistance technique.

James Dallas is president of James Dallas & Associates and the author of Mastering the Challenges of Leading Change: Inspire the People and Succeed Where Others Fail.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.