“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.

They deserve the opportunity to transition, too.

(And, by the way, transitions can be managed. Better yet: Go through transitions together.)


William Bridges’s transitions framework is a helpful mental model for change. Read more about it over here.

We plan it, we (unfortunately) sell it, we manage it. Our jobs are about making change happen. 

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. 

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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.

William Bridges’s Transition Model

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.”

Pretend like you have a new best friend, who just happens to be an alien from outer space, and you’re constantly having to explain to them how something on Earth works.

Like a grocery store. Whatever just came to your mind is part of your mental model of how a grocery store works. Now explain it to your new best friend. 

Where do you start? Do you give a lesson on commerce? Do you talk about why humans need food? Do you show them a recipe book? Do you give a lesson on food systems? Do you discuss the transformation of human society and the effects it’s had on how we source food?

Or do you grab a shopping cart, explain what it is, and begin shopping for groceries? Along the way you might explain: how to buy produce, why Cheez-Its are the snack of choice, what a butcher does, why oat milk is your preference—these are all mental models that combine with near-infinity number of other mental models to create a mental model of the grocery store. 

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Then you choose a check-out line (What’s a check out?) (What’s a queue?), unload your groceries onto a conveyor belt (What’s a conveyor belt?), watch as the clerk scans your items (What is a barcode?) (What is an optical scanner?), bag your items (Why do you need a bag?) (Where are you transporting these groceries?), presented with a total (What’s currency?) (How do you gain more currency?), and use your credit card to pay (What is credit?) (What is a credit card?) (What is payment processing?). 

It’s a lot right? And how much did you skip? That’s why mental models are important. They’re shortcuts. So every time we get hungry we don’t have to learn again what the heck a grocery store is.

Yet mental models can be improved! Coupons! Prepared foods! Cheese! Once your alien friend understands the concept of the grocery store, they can focus their energy on understanding additional mental models in the grocery store (like how to make sense of  the artisan cheese counter) while at the same time still improving their grocery store mental model with each new learning.

Soon a trip to the grocery store becomes so natural your alien friend is making phone calls to aliens at home while they shop, an activity that would have been impossible on the first trip. They’re looking for love as they pass other shoppers. They’re on a first-name basis with everyone in the bakery.

A mental model is an abstraction of a concept (grocery store), often multiple concepts (produce, check out registers, Cheez-Its, etc.), that gives us the ability to navigate through the day. Our mental models allow us to process overwhelming amounts of information rather easily. 

A problem can arise, however, when our mental models miss important details. Sometimes it’s because our mental models are too simple. Sometimes it’s as a result of missing new information because of our comfort with what we already know. Sometimes it’s because they are wrong to begin with. Sometimes it’s a combination of all the above.

We rely heavily on mental models at work to do our work. And one mental model that I’ve been improving in the last several years is how change happens in organizations. 

We’ve been conditioned to believe that change has to be a journey. But what if it isn’t? What if, as management exorcist Niels Pflaeging has concluded, it’s more like adding milk to coffee? Once a bit of milk has been splashed into a cup of coffee, the cup of coffee is different at that moment. Forever changed. No journey required. 

And what if resistance to change isn’t resistance at all but a very natural human process of transition, one that includes letting go of the known, going through a neutral zone, before a new beginning?

It’s possible this new mental model of change, one of adding milk to coffee and supporting people through transitions, will change the way you work, as it has for me. And it’s possible that you’ll continue to refine and improve this mental model of change as you use it and explore it. 

And hopefully—regardless of where you come out on milk, coffee, and transition—you now have reason to explore your existing mental models and how they guide your work successfully … or not. 

Because all mental models are wrong and some are more useful than others.