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Managing the Change Requires Managing the Transition

September 12th, 2011

We are constantly faced with change. And when we are not directly faced with change, we are constantly talking about it. Change seems to be the way of the world. However, when I look back over my short life, I can see that change has been the common theme throughout. As I reflect upon this it seems to me that the focus on change is what has changed as well. With the speed of change picking up and the awareness of change increasing, we have become overly concerned with making the change successfully or what happens when we don’t make it successfully.

William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, states that; “The single biggest reason organizational changes fail is that no one has thought about endings or planned to manage their impact on people.” Changes are happening so quickly and continually that no one is taking the time to think through the impact of the change on the people involved. I can certainly say that is true for most of the changes in which I have been professionally involved. It appears we announce the change and expect people to adjust to it and move on to the next change.

However, as Bridges points out, it is not the change that is the difficult part. Instead, it is the transition that the change initiates that makes it tough to cope. The change causes an end to the way it was or has been. This then triggers the transition. Organizational leaders need to be very aware of the change and transition process as they indicate changes needed within the organization. These leaders need to understand that before an employee can fully accept the changes being required, they first have to struggle with letting go of the present. In other words, when planning for change, one of the first things to consider is how to convince the employees to give up what they are very comfortable doing.

To help leaders think about and plan for this action, Bridges has provided a checklist of things to consider. I want to share just a few of the items that are in the check list. These items seem to be so critical to the success of any change and transition management.

Item #1.  Have I studied the change carefully and identified who is likely to lose what—including what I myself am likely to lose?

This seems fairly straightforward and yet I have personally experienced a few changes in my career where the individuals leading the change had only thought about the change and not the implications to those affected by the change. Organizational re-organizations can be an excellent example.

Item #2. Have I permitted people to grieve and protected them from well-meant attempts to stop them from expressing their anger or sadness?

Sometimes if we don’t understand the transition process we can misunderstand the show of emotion as resistance and a desire to not move into the new way of operating. However, if we begin to see it for what it is and honor the grieving, perhaps we can assist the individual through some very difficult times.

Item #3. Have I defined clearly what is over and what isn’t?

How can we expect someone to fully embrace the changes needed if they don’t fully understand what that means or looks like? Until someone can see in their mind what is desired it is very unrealistic to expect that person to make the change. And most times it takes sending that message over and over and over again. Few of us get the change with all its implications right from the start.

Item #4. Have I made a plan for giving people a piece of the past to take with them?

Many times people interpret the change as meaning that everything they have done in the past was either wrong or didn’t matter. We need to help them see that what was done in the past is what has led to the need to change. Without the past there wouldn’t be a need to change. Therefore, what can be identified about the past that can be brought forth or built upon into the future?

While these items are only a few of the items on Bridges’ checklist, they represent what change agents need to think about when trying to make a change within the organization. By giving some thought and time to these items the leaders are increasing their odds for having the organizational change become a success.

Until next time, reflect upon the changes you are asking others, as well as yourself, to make and plan for the transition that starts once the old way stops.

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