Managing Change isn’t Enough, You Also Have to Lead Transitions

In his landmark books about managing change, William Bridges made a distinction between “changes” and “transitions”.   According to his definition, a “change” is something that happens. On the other hand, “transition,” refers to the process we go through to learn how to deal with  change.  Changes can be planned, executed and managed, but transitions require leaders to address the human element of their organizations.  We frequently find our clients overly focused on change management and often not paying enough attention to transition leadership.

When our clients talk about change management, they are typically referring to updating a process, implementing new technology,  or bringing multiple organizations together under a single leader.  Leaders frequently want to jump straight into thinking about what the new organization chart will look like.   These tangible elements of managing change are important, but they are only part of the solution.   In my years of consulting, I have seen very logical organization structures fail miserably and really confusing structures succeed wildly.  Structures succeed when the leaders and employees truly believe they can make it work.   It’s important not to just manage the change, but to also lead people through their transitions to achieve this type of success.

To successfully lead through transitions, leaders must acknowledge their emotions and the emotions of their team members. During a change, each employee is going through the transition from what was old and familiar to what is new and dealing with a multitude of emotions like confusion, intimidation, excitement and fear.  It’s only by helping the members of the organization deal with their own challenges and emotions through transition that we can drive the type of alignment that leads to successful change.  

Leaders need to focus their energies on finding the best ways of engaging employees in the change process.  This means making them part of the process, and allowing them the time to drive through their transitions.  We find there are several keys to this type of engagement:

Build understanding and commitment

Give the group the time to first deeply understand the problem.  Rather than giving employees the solution, invite them into the process.   Clearly state the end goal and allow time for reflection on how the current state stands in contrast to that goal. Talking through the goals and current state can help create a strong foundation for the change.

Lean in to the Discomfort

Anticipate and embrace uncomfortable situations and emotions with your team members.  Engage the team in an honest and authentic discussion of the challenges they are experiencing and the potential opportunities.

Structure the process

Create a structured process for the group to follow that will help guide them on the path.  Allow time for exploration and discovery and frequent discussion among team members.

Be patient 

Let the process unfold and give people  the chance to “get their heads around the change.”  Create the opportunity for enthusiasm by allowing time for team members to discuss different openly.

In our experience working with numerous client organizations, well structured change efforts that follow these few guidelines are much better positioned for success.  Engaging a broad team in the process and allowing them the time to work through their personal transitions while defining the future state creates exceptional momentum for the change and positions it for success.

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