Change and Transitions
Change is inevitable in organisational life – change by design or by accident, change from within or from external sources, fast or slow, minor or major there will be change in the foreseeable future. There’s nothing wrong with change given it’s a naturally occurring phenomenon. What’s wrong is poorly thought out organisational change. Usually that phrase says “poorly managed change” – but, in our opinion it starts before that and it’s not the change that needs managing but the perfectly normal, natural psychological process of adapting to new circumstances that people go through. When things aren’t going well it’s easy to blame people and call them “blockers” or “resistant” but it is frequently the case that their resistance is because of a lack of clarity about what’s going on and where it’s all going. This instils in people a feeling of loss or impending loss. Their focus will be about what they won’t have anymore – freedom, privacy, status, autonomy, predictability, certainty, security, a place to sit, a job to be proud of, a structure they understand – who knows? It could all have been so much better handled right from the start.
William Bridges cites three questions that all leaders should be able to answer in relation to planned change.
- What is changing?
- What will actually be different because of the change?
- Who's going to lose what?
The following are summarised extracts from William Bridges article The Three Questions published in Organizations In Transition, Vol 13, #2
It still surprises me how often organizations undertake changes that no one can describe very clearly. "What's changing?" I ask. "We're changing the whole way we manufacture our product." Or, "We're developing a world-class HR infrastructure." Or, "We've come to believe that it is time to rethink the way that we go to market competitively and differentiate ourselves from the other niche players in our industry. And, also, blah, blah, blah."
The trouble with these answers is that they convey a very unclear picture of the change to those who have to make it work.
… But until that vagueness can be cooked out of the undertaking and until the leaders of the change can not only explain it clearly, but do so in a statement lasting no longer than one minute, there is no way that they are going to be able to get other people to buy into the change. Longer explanations and justifications will also have to be made, of course, but it is the one-minute statement that will be the core of people's understanding.
Explaining the what and why of the change is essential, but it is not enough. I go into organizations where a change initiative is well underway, and I ask what will be different when the change is done—and no one can answer the question…
…A change may seem very important and very real to the leader, but to the people who have to make it work it seems quite abstract and vague until actual differences that it will make begin to become clear.
… The drive to get those differences clear should be an important priority on the planners' list of things to do. If the differences simply cannot be spelled out at this time, then tell people how they will be established (by whom, using what criteria?) and when the differences will be explained. If you miss that date, by some mischance, explain why you missed it and give a new date. The thing to remember: Say what you'll do and do what you say.
The previous two questions, as important as they are, concern the change—the shift in the situation. The transition—the psychological reorientation that the people must go through to make the change work—does not start with a new situation. It starts when the affected people let go of their old situation. Endings come first. You can't do something new until you have let go of what you are currently doing. Even the transitions that come from "good" changes begin with losses of some sort, for letting go of the old way is experienced by the people who were used to it as a loss.
It's important to distinguish between change and transitions and to recognise that we are mostly talking about the latter – helping people through the three predictable phases of transition as the adapt and adjust to the new situation namely Endings, Wilderness and New Beginnings.
A good story has a structure: Beginning, Middle, End.
Change and Transitions work the other way round: Ending, Middle, Beginning.