A Low Likelihood of Success

Organizational change initiatives, whether in the form of an office move, the roll-out of a new health insurance plan, or a company-wide restructuring, are inherently difficult. They are so difficult, in fact, that a staggering 70% of all change initiatives fail.

It may surprise you to learn that where organizations generally fall short is not the in the mechanics of designing and deploying the change itself. Rather, in most situations, the change occurs, but the people affected by it are left behind, without the proper motivation, knowledge, or support to perform in the post-change environment.

Consider the following scenario:

The leadership at Company X announces a partial restructuring that will consolidate two levels of management, effectively demoting all Senior Managers to the position of Manager. The change management team sets to work: it identifies sponsors; conducts a change readiness assessment; develops and executes a change management plan that dedicates resources and time to manage communications, training, coaching, and resistance; and supports the project team through the roll out of the new org. chart by training Senior Managers on their new responsibilities.

The change management team achieves all of its milestones on time. Leadership is pleased with the implementation efforts and decides to release the new org. chart.

Several months later, the change management team conducts an audit of the organization and discovers that employee morale has dropped severely, productivity has stagnated, and former Senior Managers are leaving the company in droves.

So, what went wrong? According to William Bridges, the change consultant and author, Company X “managed the change…and forgot the transition” (William Bridges, Managing Transitions, pg. 7).

Transition: An Emotional and Psychological Process

In his landmark book, Managing Transitions, Bridges defines the concept of transition and distinguishes it from change. Change, he argues, is “situational”: once an office move takes place, for instance, the change is complete. In the scenario above, the change is deemed complete once the new org. chart is deployed and former Senior Managers begin functioning as peers to those they used to manage.

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” (Managing Transitions, pg. 3). The transition in the above scenario isn’t complete until Senior Managers affected by the change have 1) emotionally and psychologically “let go” of their former identities as Senior Managers 2) navigated through the period of uncertainty before they assume their new titles (“The Neutral Zone”), and 3) made the emotional commitment to embrace their new roles within the organization (more on the three phases of transition below).

What does this all mean to the leadership tasked with deploying a change? How can leadership help employees through what is a deeply personal, internal journey?

Throughout Managing Transitions, Bridges identifies a number of tactics that leadership can use to help individuals, and ultimately the organization, navigate through a transition successfully. Below, we’ll take a look at Bridges’ three-phase transition model and discuss some of the tactics organizations can use to conduct a successful transition.

The Three Unavoidable Phases of any Transition

The three phases of transition depict the journey individuals and the organization as a whole undertake during a change initiative. In Phase 1 – Ending, Losing, Letting Go, employees acknowledge the coming change and let go of the pre-change reality. In Phase 2 – The Neutral Zone, employees find themselves in a state of uncertainty and anxiety where the old rules don’t apply yet the new rules promised by the change have yet to come into effect. Finally, in Phase 3 – The New Beginning, employees commit to the change and begin to function in the post-change environment.

Figure 1 below depicts the three phases.

Figure 1. The Three Phases of Transition

William Bridges Transition

Notice that the phases overlap. This is because transition is a highly individual process, and people go through it at different speeds. For instance, one Company X employee might “let go” of his identity as a Senior Manager more quickly than his peers. Therefore, at any given point in the change initiative, staff will likely be arrayed across all three phases, making the job of transition management all the more difficult.

Let’s look at each phase in detail, identify some tactics you can use to navigate through your organization’s transition, and apply those tactics to the situation of Company X.

Phase 1 – Ending, Losing, Letting Go:

In the first phase of transition, employees must be able to acknowledge that their current professional situation is, to a certain extent, ending. In order to begin to embrace the coming change, they must first go through the emotional and psychological processes inherent in losing and letting go of that old reality. Depending upon the person, the emotions involved can range from minor irritation to vocalized frustration, anxiety, and even anger.

While leadership can’t force people to accept the reality of change and let go of the pre-change reality, they can find productive ways to monitor and mitigate the emotional and psychological impact of loss, leading to better outcomes for the organization and its employees. See Table 1 for some of these tactics.

Table 1. Tactics for Helping People Let Go

Tactic

Description

Assess the Transition Readiness (pg. 147-149)

Just as you would perform a Change Readiness Assessment to determine the type and scope of the change as well as various attributes that can impact the organization’s ability to deploy and enforce a change (see Prosci’s tutorial on Change Readiness Assessments), it’s important to assess its transition readiness. The Transition Readiness Assessment focuses on the ability of employees to adapt to a change. The data collected in the assessment can be used to inform your transition management approach by providing insight into the types of resistance you can expect as well as an understanding of how the organization has handled change in the past.

Sell the Problem (pg. 26)

People are much more likely to support a change initiative if they understand the connection between it and the problem it seeks to solve. Find persuasive ways to make your case. For instance, Company X ideally should have communicated the organizational challenges that were posed by its hierarchy, arguing that stratifying its management disempowered the lower level Managers, discouraged innovative thinking, and ultimately caused the company to be less nimble in its ability to go to market.

Phase 2 – The Neutral Zone:

Once people have let go of the pre-change reality, they find themselves in what Bridges calls the Neutral Zone. The Neutral Zone is a place of uncertainty where people find themselves wondering about what the change will bring and what the organization will look like for them once it is implemented. This uncertainty can breed fear and anxiety and lead to workforce disruptions, including decreased productivity and even attrition.

At the same time, the Neutral Zone is a place of possibility that presents an opportunity for people to reconsider the organization’s identity and think innovatively about how it can improve its approach in other areas.

Table 2. Tactics for Ushering Your People Through the Neutral Zone

Tactic

Description

Normalize the Neutral Zone (pg. 77)

Figure out ways to make this time palatable for employees. For example, Company X could have acknowledged that this is an uncomfortable time for the organization and then reassured people that it will continue to conduct regular staff meetings and performance reviews.

Use a Transition Monitoring Team (TMT) (pg. 88)

A TMT is a group of 7-12 people that meets every week or two to take the pulse of the organization in transition by reaching out to their peers during the course of the business day. Leadership can use this group to gather feedback on reactions to the coming change.

In the case of Company X, this would have been a good way of redirecting employee focus from pushing back on the restructuring by investing employees in the change, and thus, the organization’s future. This is also good way to gather data for use in developing a Transition Rollout Plan (see below).

Phase 3 – The New Beginning:

Now that people have let go of the old way of doing things and have navigated through the Neutral Zone, it is time for the final stage of transition, The New Beginning. Here, individuals emotionally and psychologically commit to the new reality that the change is creating. Leadership’s focus in conducting the transition now shifts from activities geared toward mitigating the negative impact of the change for those affected by it to getting people invested in making the change a success.

Bridges organizes his tactics around what he calls the four P’s: Purpose, Picture, Plan, and Part.

Table 3. Tactics for a Successful New Beginning

Tactic

Description

Purpose: Clarify and communicate the purpose of the change (pg. 113)

Just as you sold the problem (see above) earlier in Phase 1, you now have to sell the purpose of the change. The reasoning for the change must be sound and resonate with the problem it seeks to solve.

For Company X, communications should have focused on how flattening its structure would have empowered managers and encouraged innovative thinking.

Picture: Share vision of the To-Be state (pg. 115)

It helps to make the reality envisioned by the change initiative as tangible as possible. In the case of Company X, leadership could have created a handout that depicted the new management processes.

Plan: Lay out a detailed, step-by-step plan for when people will receive the information, training, and support they need to make the transition (i.e., a Transition Roll-Out Plan) (pg. 121)

The Transition Rollout Plan is a set of scheduled milestones designed to help staff through the three phases of transition. In the case of Company X, this could have included a kickoff date for the Transition Monitoring Team, dates for training on new management processes, a Q&A session with leadership regarding the restructuring initiative, and a formal date for the change of titles.

Part: Give people a part to play in the transition (pg. 123)

Getting people involved and invested in their own transitions is one of the best ways to refocus energy away from pushing back on a change initiative.

At Company X, leadership could have encouraged people to join the Transition Monitoring Team or even become part of the change team.

By giving people a part in the transition, people take on ownership of the change and become invested in making it successful for them, their coworkers, and the organization as a whole.

Incorporating Transition Management into Your Next Change Effort: Piggy-Back on an Existing Change Management Model

One of the main issues I have with Bridges’ approach is that, while it provides crucial insight into change that other approaches lack, it remains more abstract and strategic than tactical. True, we’ve devoted a lot of time above to describing the tactics he defines. At the same time, taken together, they don’t really constitute the type of structured framework that you can apply to manage an end-to-end change initiative.

Given the limits of the Bridges approach, I think the best way to incorporate transition management into a change initiative is to leverage a well-accepted change model and add some transition-focused tactics onto it.

Figure 2 provides an example of what this could look like using Kotter’s 8-Step Process for Leading Change (read more about the Kotter model here).

Figure 2. Transition Tactics Applied to Kotter's Change Model

In the example above, the change management team could conduct a Transition Readiness Assessment at the outset of the initiative when, in the phrasing of the Kotter model, the team is focused on “Creating a climate for change.” When the team changes its focus to “Engaging and enabling the organization,” it could stand up a Transition Monitoring Team to help it better engage with the organization by leveraging frontline staff. Finally, just as it is about to implement the change, it could deploy a Transition Rollout Plan to provide staff with key milestones on transition events.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this blog post has provided you with a solid foundation on the concept of transition. Armed with this foundation, you can apply the tactics of transition management to your next change initiative.