“It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.” William Bridges, Author of Managing Transitions
I am in the process of ‘transitioning’ from full time work to something else. A general description of ‘something else’ is a state where I play more than I work. As I begin this transition, I am reminded about how ‘change management’ has been such an important part of my life – personally and professionally. As a leader for over 40 years, the nature of how I managed change has evolved. I thought the exploration of this topic would be useful, as we live in a world where change continues to accelerate at an amazing pace. How we choose to deal with change and our transitions, will set the tone for much of how are personal and professional life evolves.
William Bridges wrote a book on Managing Transitions in 1991, and updated it in 2003, and in 2009. I first read the 2nd edition in 2007. I probably should go back and read the 2009 edition. Here is how Bridges frames the subject.
“Change is situational: the move to a new site, the retirement of the founder, the reorganization of the roles of the team, the revisions to the pension plan. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.”
I will draw from Bridges’ book/concepts, and add my own experience. My hope is that you will find ‘nuggets’ for your own journey.
As always, thank you to those who provide me feedback. It is always helpful and appreciated.
Do your best work and be well.
Endings and Beginnings
I appreciate the distinction that William Bridges makes between “change” and “transition.” I share Bridges experience that in our work, and often personally, we are focused on the change, failing to recognize where the real work lies – helping people get from what was to what is going to be.
In organizations, leadership can get very enthusiastic about change, particularly when we perceive it to be something that will ‘advance’ the company. We focus on where we are going. What is going on for everyone else is, “How does this effect me, and what am I giving up?”
The first transition we have to deal with is about ‘ending.’ Bridges points out that the first transition begins with “giving up something.” My overwhelming experience as a leader of change, is that we fail to account for the ‘loss’ that people will experience. We focus on all the ‘good’ things about the change, and how much better things will be when we get there. We focus on the task of change because it is tactical and easier. It is just not better. At the core, transitions are about the people. People experience change, and the pace of change, with a wide variety of emotions. To effectively deal with this transition it is imperative that we acknowledge that our people will need to let go of something (i.e., how they have done something in the past). If we don’t deal well with this, then it is likely many will not feel compelled to change. What you get is the implementation of: new software, the merger of the new company, a new initiative (service line), etc.), but no shift in behavior. Change initiatives fail, the behaviors that needed to change didn’t. If we don’t build the space in our change initiative to acknowledge the loss, then are efforts for a successful change are dooming or handicapped from the beginning.
The next transition is about the ‘neutral zone’ – where the old ways of doing things are gone, but the new ways are not engrained. This can be a very uncomfortable place for some. Unless we articulate what the ‘neutral zone’ is all about, and that it is a natural part of the process, it can feel like we are not making progress and people will become discouraged. Bridges points out that this is also the place where we lose people from the organization.
It may seem paradoxical, but the ‘neutral zone’ can be the best place for us to engage people in creatively solving how they do things. Bridges expresses it as:
“…the time when repatterning takes place: old maladaptive habits are replaced with new ones that are better adapted to the world in which the organization now finds itself. It is the winter in which the roots begin to prepare themselves for spring’s renewal…It is the chaos into which the old form dissolves and from which the new form emerges.”
This is the time when we have the opportunity to reward/encourage people who are trying new behaviors to adapt to the change. It has been my experience that when people begin to experiment with a ‘new way of doing things,’ you’ve reached a key place in the core transition. They are beginning to buy in to the new and discarding the old. You are beginning to build some inertia for the change.
The neutral zone is an interesting place. With a little recognition and guidance you can both explain why the ‘no man’s land’ people may feel they are in, is actually a natural part of any change. How long it lasts is a function of how welcome the change is. It can be a great opportunity to encourage creativity, a chance for the employees to renew themselves by engaging in behavior that helps the change be successful.
As the inertia of change begins to take hold, you are at the new ‘beginning’. The speed with which the transitions occur is a function of how welcome the change is for the people. All three processes (ending, neutral zone, new beginning) are needed. They often occur simultaneously. You will have people in all three transitions at once, depending on their perception of the advantage of the change.
Perhaps another reason we don’t recognize transitions as part of change, is because we know that transitions can be ‘messy’ and we don’t really want to deal with messiness. This avoidance tends to lengthen the change process and prevents us from experiencing the success we could, or none at all.
“I know that most men, including those at ease with the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.” Leo Tolstoy
Think about how you deal with change in your organizations. How does this compare with how you deal with change personally? I believe that we would all be better served if we distinguished between the situational nature of change, and the processes of transition that will allow us to bridge to what is next. We may believe “that takes too long,” but does it?
What change are you working on? Where are you in the transition? What do you need to move through your ‘loss’ and on toward a new normal for yourself and/or your organization?
To a better you…
I have included a link to a PDF by Bridges that covers the major points, and makes suggestions about change initiatives.