We all know -- and some of us even accept -- that change is ever with us. Transition is the intrinsic companion to change. You may be wondering about the distinction between change and transition. Allow me to elaborate.
Change is an event, something tangible that happens. In an organizational setting, it could be an acquisition or merger, a major re-organization, a move, a new boss. In contrast, a transition is a process, less tangible, yet still very real. It is the human experience, the psychological process that people go through as they acclimate to a change. It is an essential period of adjustment. It is the time between how it used to be, before the change, and how it is after the change has been accepted and integrated. It is a gradual process, and it takes time.
This topic is of particular interest to me as I had the pleasure of working with one of the pioneering organizational analysts to explore this subject, William Bridges, Ph.D.
Dr. Bridges had written a seminal book called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. I worked with him to translate his concepts on transition from the individual to the organizational setting. He subsequently wrote Surviving Corporate Transition, which he revised in 2009, now entitled Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Dr. Bridges became a highly-regarded leader in the field of organizational change and transition, and travels world- wide to speak and consult with governments, corporations and professional associations.
Dr. Bridges’ transition model describes a three-part process. It starts with endings or loss, moves into what he calls “the neutral zone,” and concludes with a new beginning. We have learned, with Dr. Bridges’ insights to help guide us, that human beings require a time of transition in order to assimilate a change. In general, the greater the magnitude of the change, the longer and likely more complicated the transition process will be. Although we may be unaware of it, if we are adjusting to a change, we are going through a transition process.
Leaders and managers particularly need to understand and acknowledge the transition process that accompanies a change event. Cynthia Scott, Ph.D, and Dennis Jaffe, Ph.D, have also contributed to our understanding of change and the transition process. In their book, Managing Organizational Change, they identified four phases that people typically experience during a major transition.
Phase one is Denial, often evidenced by apathy or numbness, a “wake me when it’s over” mindset. Nothing appears to be any different, and business as usual is temporarily maintained.
Phase two is Resistance, when people begin to feel the uncertainty inherent in change -- and perhaps resist it. Some of the characteristics of this phase include doubt, depression, fear, and anxiety. Productivity and morale may drop.
Phase three is Exploration. Energy is rising, although it is often unfocused and perhaps even chaotic. This is a creative time for the organization, yet it is typically still an unsettled time.
The fourth and final phase is Commitment, when people are once again able to cooperate and move toward the organization's goals. Clarity and focus are evident, and the change has been assimilated.
For leaders and managers, planning in advance for change and transition and then continuing to plan throughout the transition process is the key to success. Anticipating the phases in the transition process allows people and organizations to more easily move through the change. One of the methods I use is to establish a temporary structure, a “transition team” to specifically address the issues that arise throughout the transition period.