“It isn’t the changes that will do you in; it’s the transitions,” writes William Bridges. “They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational: the move to a new site, a new CEO replaces the founder, the reorganization of the roles on the team, and new technology.
“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.”
The transition (psychological) is where we deal with the change (situation) and what it means to our situation specifically. It’s the component of change that is often labeled resistance. And no wonder, because the first phase of every transition is where we process what we’re losing.
Your transition, which accompanies any change, depends on when you receive information that a change is happening (planned) or a change is occurring (unplanned). In traditional command-and-control organizations, like the ones we work for, your place on the org chart largely determines when you receive that information.
If a plan for change is created at the executive level, then revealed to the management layer, then shared with the rest of the workforce—just by way of how we do things—a transition lag occurs.
A transition lag is the interval between when a transition begins (information is received) for employees at different levels.
The danger of a transition lag is in not allowing those who receive information last (the workers) the same opportunity to complete a transition as those who received the information first. It’s easy to forget that something you’ve been thinking about, strategizing on, and planning for weeks is still new information, and often to the people it matters to most.
Of the emails you’ve sent, or the meetings you’ve attended, or the phone calls you’ve made this week—how many of them were advocating against the status quo? All of them? It’s why we work!
So it’s perplexing just how bad organizations are at change when you consider how much of it they’re always trying to do. They’re so bad, that with little evidence, all of us accept the common myth that employees don’t like change.
Well I have a book—and importantly an idea—for you. William Bridges’s Managing Transitions is a buy-it-and-read-it-now book that will have you and everyone on your team rethinking the validity of commonly accepted beliefs about change in organizations.
“It isn’t the changes that will do you in; it’s the transitions,” he writes. “They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational: the move to a new site, a new CEO replaces the founder, the reorganization of the roles on the team, and new technology.
“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.”
The resistance to change we all speak so expertly about isn’t resistance to a new reality, it’s resistance to what the new reality might mean for me, for you, for any of us as individuals. It’s all of us saying, “I don’t think so, this grass is plenty green for me.”
The problem is by the time anyone gets wind of a change, the grass on the other side of the fence has been deemed much, much greener by people in charge.
That’s often because the people making the decisions about the change have already gone through their transition. They’ve had time to consider and process the change for themselves so they’re comfortable with what the new reality represents. People participating in the change usually aren’t afforded the same opportunity.
Yet the point of Bridges book is that whether you’re making decisions or having decisions made for you (and as an important aside, there is an alternative to these poles called participatory change), transition is critical to successful change.
At this point you’re likely confused because every change management plan you’ve seen included nothing about individual transitions. Exactly. Our methods of change focus only on the situational factors. They (almost always) ignore the human element of change: the psychological transition.
What Bridges differentiates between is the relatively straightforward change of using a new electronic medical record, or adopting a new reporting structure, or working for a new boss—all changes that can be scheduled—and the transition for what it means to individuals psychologically such as losing expert status on the old EMR, or the power dynamics of reporting to a supervisor who until yesterday was a peer, or figuring out how to work with a new boss who has a different management style—transitions that no implementation plan can make explicit.
We can use the example of moving to a new city, an experience just about all of us have had, to distinguish between a situational change and psychological transition.
The situational change is straightforward: physically relocating from Place A to Place B. There’s a schedule to be followed. It requires finding a new place to live, boxes to carry your things, and a moving truck to transport them. Some of it is even hard work.
The psychological transition is what makes moving difficult. It requires saying goodbye—literally and figuratively, continues into a state between what was and what will be, and ultimately progresses into figuring out your new situation and finding new friends, new opportunities, new comforts.
Those are three phases of a transition: Ending, Neutral Zone, and Beginning. Bridges also refers to them as processes, which I find is a better illustration because all three processes are happening concurrently, to different degrees of intensity as time goes on.
Here is how Bridges describes each process:
Ending: Letting go of the old ways and the old identify people had. The first phase of transition is an ending and the time when you need to help people to deal with their losses.
Neutral Zone: Going through an in-between time when the old is gone and the new isn’t fully operational. We call this time the “neutral zone”: it’s when the critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place.
Beginning: Coming out of the transition and making a new beginning. This is when people develop the new identity, experience the new energy, and discover the new sense of purpose that makes the change begin to work.
“Because transition is a process by which people unplug from an old world and plug into a new world, we can say that transition begins with an ending and finishes with a beginning,” writes Bridges.
“Beginnings depend on endings,” he continues, “The problem is, people don’t like endings.”
And people especially don’t like endings when there’s limited opportunity to explicitly transition.
That’s the opportunity to improve your change efforts.
Bridges’s book can help you help others through every transition that comes with a change. What follows is a short description of each phase, but go buy the book for a comprehensive explanation. Plus it’s going to turn into a bible of sorts you will consult again and again.
When facilitating an Ending, it’s critical to identify who’s losing what. Think of the change as a cue ball rolling across a pool table, writes Bridges, “Try to foresee as many of those hits as you can.” People will be experiencing subjective loss, acknowledge them empathically, and don’t be surprised by visceral reactions. An ending can include a grieving process and it’s important to treat the past with respect, no matter what that past represents to you or the organization. People are looking for information: give it again and again, define what’s over and what isn’t, and demonstrate how an ending is best for the greater good.
An important question to answer for each individual: “What can I give back to balance what’s been taken away?” At work, while losses can include tangible items, they more often include elements of status, power, confidence, job security, expertise, career paths, loyalty, predictability, opportunity, among others. A key element of an ending is to compensate for what is being lost.
It isn’t all doom and gloom, however, because as the ending is happening we’re beginning to move into a Neutral Zone which represents a chance to do something new and interesting. The neutral zone is the nowhere between two somewheres, where what was doesn’t exist any longer and what will be isn’t yet recognizable. It’s not easy, of course, but optimism can be on the horizon when the neutral zone is made explicit, normalized, and redefined with a positive narrative.
The Beginning is the process where we make the change work. It’s what occurs when we emerge from the wilderness, to borrow a metaphor from Bridges. It’s a “psychological phenomena,” he writes. “Beginnings involve new understandings, new values, new attitudes, and—most of all—new identities.”
It’s here where transitions start to feel a little woo-woo for the business world. But it doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, what I enjoyed so much about Managing Transitions is it provides a vocabulary to talk realistically about the human experience of change at work.
Our efforts to implement change focus on the future, on what will be, on where we’re going. But focusing only on the situational change comes at great expense, whether it’s failed change, change that doesn’t meet expectations, or employees demoralized by the situation itself.
“Unmanaged transition makes change unmanageable,” writes Bridges.
People require a transition with their change. We need new beginnings.
“A start can and should be carefully designed, like an object,” he concludes, “A beginning can and should be nurtured, like a plant. Starts take place on a schedule, as a result of decisions. They are signaled by announcements.
“Beginnings, on the other hand, are the final phase of this organic process that we call ‘transition,’ and their timing is not set by the dates written on the implementation schedule. Beginnings follow the timing of the mind and heart.”
“Many of us go through life only half awake.” Bill James
There’s not a secret to improving how you and your team work. It just requires promoting things that organizations haven’t been very good at doing in a desire for complete efficiency, namely better thinking and learning by everyone.
It can be disconcerting to learn the way we work isn’t working.
It’s not an easy task, but not impossible. That’s the biggest hurdle. For you, for anyone, for me. In fact, when I first started finding evidence of a different worldview, I felt like I was never going to get it. New concepts, new ideas, new theories. It was overwhelming. (And exciting.)
These are ten foundational ideas I’ve collected along the way that have helped me understand why work is the way it is and—most importantly—helped me to take action in finding the ways to work more effectively.
As you’ll learn, the only way to change work is through the work by doing the work.
(2) A lot of improve-the-work initiatives are undertaken for the wrong reasons, namely to improve employee engagement or improve the organization’s culture. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, especially the illustration of different business contexts and the introduction of complexity, provides us a different reason to work in a more natural way: so the business can be successful!
Here’s a quote: “Most situations and decisions in organizations are complex because some major change—a bad quarter, a shift in management, a merger or acquisition—introduces unpredictability and flux.”
(3) Command and control management relies on an incorrect assumption about human behavior, that humans dislike work and must be told what to do. What Douglas McGregor asserts in his seminal The Human Side of Enterprise (published in 1960! and still very relevant today) is if an employee is disengaging from the work it is as a result of how the organization is managed and not because of their human nature.
McGregor’s Theory Y postulates that under the right conditions employees seek responsibility and exercise self-direction and self-control in the pursuit of organizational objectives. In other words people can be trusted to do the work if conditions of trust are present. The book is (most assuredly) worth reading.
(4) Harold Jarche’s “Work is learning and learning is the work” insight was a revolutionary finding for me. What it means is work and learning are the same. We’re learning about the problems we’re solving as we’re solving them, because … complexity.
Here’s what Jarche writes: “There is no time to pause, go into the back room, and then develop something to address our learning needs. The problem will have changed by then. We need to learn as we work.”
(5) It’s human nature to desire proof that working differently, well … works.
It’s also dangerous because there is a natural bias to copy and paste what works for one organization into your own. This behavior is a big reason for why work is the way work is. When we copy and paste, we eliminate context, and we subcontract our thinking to methods, models, and consultants.
It’s the story (and much more) of when McChrystal took command of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq. What he found was the world’s best military and its conventional military tactics failing against an inferior enemy. This book is the story of the transformation required to work differently (not only to be successful, but largely to stop failing).
If the military can do it—command and control at its absolute height—so can your department.
And Then These Ideas
(6) Systems. I know about systems. I still don’t have a handle on systems. I’m not sure it’s possible to have a handle on systems. But seeing systems provides an explanation for why so many things are the way they are. That’s important.
My … ahem … thing with systems is I’ve found the concept can be a little debilitating. As I’ve embraced the idea of systems, I’ve also become more reticent—at times—to take action. Which is perhaps the point. Nonetheless, it can be confusing.
(7) Who in your organization can meet the needs of a single patient without working with other people? Yet most organizations are still highly focused on the performance of the individual employee, often at the expense of the team performance and value creation.
Some out-of-context but bang-on quotations from management legends henceforth:
John Seddon: “The problem of people not working together won’t be solved by interventions such as teamworking, participation, empowerment programmes and the like, for one simple reason: it is the system that governs behaviour.”
W. Edwards Deming, part one: “The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 or 95 percent of performance.”
W. Edwards Deming, part two: “Put a good person in a bad system and the bad system wins, no contest.”
W. Edwards Deming, part three: “The role of management is to change the system rather than badgering individuals to do better.”
(8) Making change happen is literally the job we’re all paid to do. Unfortunately, the models of change that many of us have learned are incomplete or a misinterpretation of good theory. It’s had an unfortunate impact on our change outcomes.
Then make another visit to Amazon for two essential books. John Kotter’s Leading Change will help you reacclimate to the situational aspects of managing change. And William Bridges’s Managing Transitions will be your guide to the psychological transition that accompanies every change, a concept we’ve essentially been ignoring to the detriment of the people we work with and the outcomes of our efforts.
(9) I want to bring some of these interconnected topics together. Actually, I am going to have Niels Pflaeging bring them together in this video where you can hear why he believes drinking more coffee and starting a smoking habit are good for your career:
“What’s stopping you from doing the best work of your life?”
Better thinking and learning is what is required for organizations to return to a more natural way of working.
To do that, to promote better thinking and learning, we need to improve our thinking and learning.
That’s why I’ve created a weekly email series (currently) containing 34 advanced topics to help you increase your confidence in applying them. You’ll receive one email per week with the ideas, books, people to follow, videos, resources, et. al, I’ve been collecting and curating for more than five years. Think of it as a regular infusion of new thinking to help you make (more) change happen at work and in your career.
Working with these ideas—learning, thinking, discussing them—is how to gain confidence in applying them. I’ve found that continued exploration to be the most important factor in helping me do that and I believe it will help you to do the same.
All 34 are yours for $10. And you’ll receive each additional idea added to the series, so there’s no telling what the final number will be. (You can always unsubscribe if your interests change.)
Receive The Weekly Email including examples of organizations working in this way already, a participatory change model you can use the moment you learn it, why mental models are foundational to the work we do, why organization principles are better than an organization’s values, and (at least) 30 more for the cost of two cups of coffee.
The challenge of selling change in an organization is right there in the metaphor we use when we ask the question: “Alright, great work everyone, now how do we get employees to buy-in?”
You’re (probably) doomed!
Take a salesperson you know for a cup of coffee. Preferably someone who sells professional services or technology products to enterprise customers. Ask them to explain their sales process to you.
Without a doubt, somewhere early in their description, they’ll describe the process they use to understand a prospective customer’s problem or need. If they’re really good at their job, they’ll tell you stories of how they’ve helped prospective customers uncover problems or needs the customer didn’t even know they had!
The lesson here is no one can sell a thing to someone if they don’t know they have a problem. The same goes for the employees you’re now trying to convince to adopt your change initiative.
If there’s time for a second cup, ask them about their success rate on cold sales pitches. They’ll have one of two reactions: 1) an uncomfortable chuckle followed by a number close to zero or 2) a puzzled look accompanied with a question like, “What do you mean?”
Here’s what they’re telling you: cold sales pitches don’t work.
The act of selling works when buyers and sellers participate in a sales process together. When it’s done effectively, in partnership, in a trustworthy manner, it doesn’t feel like you’re being sold.
The same can be said about the change process. When it’s done effectively, in partnership, in a trustworthy manner, it doesn’t feel like you’re being changed because you’re an active participant in the process.
Refocus your change “selling” efforts to helping your team get engaged in the change process at the beginning. Understand the problem together. Then work on the solution together. It’s that simple. And that difficult.
But so much easier than getting employees to buy-in to any change initiative you’re peddling after the work has been completed.
“Communication of ideas helps people see the need for and the logic of a change, wrote Kotter, “The education process can involve one-on-one discussions, presentations to groups, or memos and reports.”
It’s a message that probably sounds like what you’ll hear from your salesperson friend over coffee: You don’t need buy-in at the end, you need enrollment from the start.
It’s the perfect rebuttal to the change-as-journey metaphor we’ve been saddled with for so long. Metaphors matter and using different metaphors have a profound effect on our view of the world.
Pflaeging’s introduction of a different metaphor captures everything right about making change happen and discards the baggage of the long, arduous, this-may-fail journeys we’ve been toiling on since entering the workforce. What he isn’t saying is that more change doesn’t happen over a longer period of time, it’s that we don’t have to wait for a journey to be completed before we recognize that change has occurred.
He writes, “The journey metaphor tricks us into ignoring the possibility that the desired change might be accomplished quickly, with little effort, right now, with existing resources and with minimal disruption. The metaphor itself makes change hard.”
What happens when we view change as a journey is that we spend a whole lot of time planning for what that change is going to be rather than just going out and making that change happen.
This is a disrupting idea. I’ve had conversations with people who flat out reject the notion that change can happen [right now]. That’s how conditioned we’ve become to the idea that change is always difficult.
What he offers as an alternative is that change is a flip from now to new. And that the amount of change we’re looking for when embarking on a journey can really just be a series of flips from now to new.
This journey hullabaloo is a byproduct of the command and control approach to management. And no person in the last few years has helped me realize how pervasive command and control principles are in organizations—even during this enlightened period—than Pflaeging.
He’s written a book—which, if I haven’t gifted it to you yet, you should buy—that you will return to, as I have, many times in your career. “Organize for Complexity, How to get life back into work to build the high-performance organization,” is a book about complexity and work and if it were acceptable to copy and paste an entire text right here, I would because it’s that illuminating.
People have shared with me after their first read that they enjoyed it but didn’t understand everything he expresses. Yes. Read it again in a month. And then again in a month. (It can be read in 90 minutes, so no worries there.)
It’s not that the content is too academic or unintelligible, it’s that the concepts fly so directly in the face of everything we think we know and understand about organizations, it just doesn’t feel “right.”
“Right,” of course, is a construct of our own collective making and this book does its best to remodel our beliefs about how things actually work at work.
Basically, since the early 1900s, we’ve been separating the thinking from the doing on the belief that the top of the organization is best at making decisions and the bottom of the organization is best at doing the work.
That approach was useful during the industrial revolution. It’s constraining now. Instead, as a result of our increasing awareness of complexity, we should view our organizations from the center out.
The book goes on to describe the concept of a better way to organize our organizations, why complexity matters at work, why our beliefs about human behavior are imperative to understand if we want our organizations to succeed, why thinking in systems will help you see work differently, and a few other informative topics. It ends with an interview tiled “Management is quackery” in case the point hadn’t been made. So there you go.
Another quote I like of his: “Culture is like a shadow. You cannot change it, but it changes all the time.” Let that sink in as you reflect on all the culture change initiatives you’ve been a part of.
You probably won’t be shocked to learn that he believes much of what happens in organizations is based on flawed assumptions. Here he writes, “Most books, articles and concepts on leadership are ridiculous. Mainly, that’s because they fail to consider history, available science, and the systemic nature of work and organizations.”
He believes that the organizational structure we all use to illuminate power in the organization is actually missing two other representations. The pyramid we know is the formal structure which is only good for following the rules. The second structure is more of a network and is the realm of influence, it’s called the informal structure, and is composed of relationships between people. Then there’s the value creation structure which is where the work actually happens. The theory is called Org Physics. More here. Go read it as it’s illuminating.
You’ll see the Beta Codex mentioned throughout Pflaeging’s work. It’s a set of principles for thinking and acting in organizations and is the foundation of his work (and, I’ve found, better understood after studying some of his other work first).
Here is a keynote that is well worth the next 60 minutes of your day (and a useful pastime until Amazon delivers the book you just ordered). Though it’s at an agile community event, you don’t need to know anything about Agile to find value in the talk.
A Slimmer Work Workout
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