It’s Not the Change, It’s the Transition

Posted 04.22.2009

Book_managingtransitions In just about every presentation I’ve given to leaders since last fall, I’ve recommended that everyone order their own personal copy of Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges.  I’ll make the same recommendation to you.  If you’re a leader and you don’t have a copy of this book, you need it.  After you’re done reading this post, get on Amazon and buy it.

Bridges’ book is a manual (it even includes checklists) for dealing with the biggest challenge facing leaders today which is moving everyone towards a new reality.  One of my favorite lines when I was a manager and remains so today as a coach is that it’s important to understand the difference between what should be and what is.

It doesn’t take a lot of effort these days to find examples of people that are stuck on what “should be” rather than what is. 

For instance, the story that came out this week that executives at Chrysler Financial were considering not taking additional government assistance because doing so would have a negative impact on their compensation is a good example of focusing on what “should be” or what used to be. As another example, I’ve noticed in the past six months that the New York Times (especially the Sunday edition) has become a chronicle of how people react when their sense is that they “should be” affluent and then realize that they actually aren’t. A lot of the recent writing by Times columnist Maureen Dowd reflects that whole vibe.

As another example, how about some of the banks who just months ago needed the TARP money to stay afloat now reporting first quarter profitability and scrambling to get out from under TARP ASAP?  Of course, that could have the benefit of getting the government out of their shorts on executive compensation but does anyone really believe that those profits are sustainable over the rest of the year?  Credit card company Capital One’s report yesterday of a sharp increase in loan delinquencies and a report in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that student lenders are seeing big jumps in loan defaults seem to be a better reflection of what is than what “should be” in the financial services sector.

What  these examples show is the truth of the opening line in Bridges’ book, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.”  Bridges makes the simple point that before anything new can begin, something else has to end and that there is a period between the two when the rules aren’t clear and that’s called the neutral zone. Sometimes I prefer the term “crazy time” for neutral zone. It’s the period where the rules aren’t clear and it can get more than a little crazy. 

I’d argue that as a society we’re in crazy time right now. We know for sure that an era has ended. (At least most of us seem to know that, there are always examples that illustrate people still trying to hang on to what’s ended.  For instance, I just read that top executives at the New York Times are getting bonuses when the paper just declared a $74 million loss and announced more job cuts.)

What we don’t know for sure is what the next phase looks like. That uncertainty about what’s next makes crazy time that much more pronounced. Nature abhors a vacuum and people in transition abhor a vacuum of information or clarity. When they don’t have a clear picture of the future, they make one up for themselves and it usually isn’t very productive. Sometimes it looks like denial (e.g. bonuses and temporary profitability) and sometimes it looks like anger (e.g. last week’s tea parties on April 15).  Sometimes it looks like depression (e.g. again, see some of Maureen Dowd’s columns) and sometimes it looks like bargaining (e.g.  any given day’s coverage on CNBC).   The goal is to get people to acceptance of the new reality.  That’s the challenge for President Obama and his team and for all leaders in their own organizations.

It’s not the change. That’s a given. It’s the transition and that’s the part that requires mindful and intentional leadership. Bridges would define the work as making four things clear:

  • What’s the purpose of this organization (or this government or this society)?
  • What’s the picture of how things will be when we’re meeting that purpose?
  • What’s the plan for creating that picture?
  • What’s the part that each individual or stakeholder group plays in the plan?

How clear are you on any or all of those questions?  How clear is your organization?  What can you do to raise the level of clarity that will move people through crazy time and onto the new beginning?