When starting any kind of change effort we tend to focus our attention on the destination or outcome that we (hope) to achieve when we are done. Change on it’s own is situational; it is the external event that inspires us to move in a specific direction. For an organisation this can take the form of a new strategy, a change in leadership, a merger or a new product. This is often in response to external events and can happen very quickly.
I think this is good from a conceptual perspective for people to understand the goal of a change but it often ignores the inner process that the participants need to go through to get there. This process is a transition where people need to come to terms with the new situation and what they are leaving behind. The things that they leave behind are often deeply rooted in their lives and this will be viewed as a loss. Understanding this loss and managing these transitions are essential if the change is to actually work as planned.
William Bridges has outlined this process very well in his ‘Transition Model for Change’. A model I refer to quite frequently
In this model he presents three stages - Endings, Neutral Zones and New Beginnings. Figure 1.
Transition starts with an ending. This is paradoxical but true. This first phase of transition begins when people identify what they are losing and learn how to manage these losses. They determine what is over and being left behind, and what they will keep. These may include relationships, processes, team members or locations.
The second step comes after letting go: the neutral zone. People go through an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. It is when the critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place. It is the very core of the transition process. This is the time between the old reality and sense of identity and the new one. People are creating new processes and learning what the new roles will be, but it’s in flux and doesn’t feel comfortable yet. It is the seedbed of the new beginnings that are sought.
Beginnings involve new understandings, new values and attitudes. Beginnings are marked by a release of energy in a new direction – they are an expression of a fresh identity. Well-managed transition allows people to establish in new roles with an understanding of their purpose, the part they play, and how to contribute and participate most effectively. They are reoriented and renewed.
As leaders we tend to spend a lot of your time on the ‘leaderly’ new beginning stages by talking about new visions and directions. Leaders have likely spent a great deal of time thinking about and discussing the future so it can feel very tempting to dangle the shiny new vision in front of people. The problem is this often isn’t what people want or need when they are coming to terms with what is ending. The rest of the organisation has not been involved in these discussions. The organisation is out of sync and need to be sensitive to this.
Leaders need to spend time discussing this loss with people in the organisation and document these discussion in a way that allows leaders to become more empathetic to the context. They need to understand that things they have now that are presently working will be maintained.
People need to feel heard before they will listen to you.
Once they listen and internalise the message they can more easily manage the loss of the change.
Nothing so undermines organisational change as the failure to think through who will have to let go of what when change occurs - William Bridges
For additional reading about Bridge’s model I can recommend his book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change