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William Bridges and his transition framework can help you make (more) change happen

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.”

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