Where Are We Now?! By Bill Thatcher | Part One
Special Note: Part One is for anyone within More To Life wanting to understand where we are in implementing our change work. Part Two is for More To Life leaders and stakeholders interested in offering assistance to others within More To Life to have a successful transition process experience.
I almost titled this reflection “Are We There Yet?!” Maybe the next one will warrant that title. But I do note a level of impatience on the part of some within our circle for “getting on with it.” That feeling is mostly found with those who have been slogging through the change process for, lo, these many months!
I have some good news and some bad news
I choose good news first: the Organizational Change process is close to being done. The bad news? We have now entered the Transition process. Wait, did no one tell you there was something after all the change process work? I’m sorry. But, yes, there is another part of our work that needs naming. We are now officially in the “Transition” process.
What is this and how is it different from spending these long months slogging through the jungle to reach our destination?
Well, I have some more good news: The transition process by which people get through change is well mapped. We are not on our own. Many others have come before and they have even left their “maps” for us. The one I am using for what I am writing to you now is William Bridges’ Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. So much of what follows is straight from this book. If something seems amazingly good, I didn’t say it; I’m just channeling the book. I say that because I don’t think I’ve gotten all the quotation marks in the right place, and I’m pulling some of the following words from previous pieces. So, this will not be my exhibit to show how not to plagiarize!
Let me quickly say that the organizational change process was so fundamental to getting us to this point in time AND it is not sufficient to see us into the new world (I just imagine you are tired of me talking about the old world and the new world). It may not have escaped your notice that we now have an International Transition Team. Are we ever lucky, because this team is the mapmaker for getting us to the new world. It won’t be sufficient – I’ll say more about that in Part Two – but it is a huuuge start.
I acknowledge one truth from the very beginning: Change of any sort finally succeeds or fails on the basis of whether people do things differently.
That is fundamentally what we are after, folks. The results we are seeking depend on getting people to STOP doing things the old way and getting them to START doing things a new way. And because people have a personal connection to how they work, there is just no way to do that impersonally.
The other thing is that it isn’t the changes that do us in, it’s the transitions. “They aren’t the same thing,” says Dr. Bridges. “Change is situational: the move to a new site, the retirement of the founder, the reorganization of the roles on the team… Transitioning, 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…when a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of the chairs.” I think that is an allusion to the Titanic.
So, what are transition’s three phases?
- Letting go of the old ways and the old identity people had. This first phase is an ending and the time when you need to help people deal with their losses.
- Going through an in-between time when the old way is gone – or disappearing – but the new isn’t fully in place. We call this time the “neutral zone”. It’s when the critical psychological realignments and re-patterning take place. Bridges says that “a big temptation when in this phase is to attempt to rush yourself and everyone around you through it as quickly as possible. That would be a mistake.” Worse yet is to deny you are even in this phase. This is what I mean by the importance of naming for us as leaders. If it feels like chaos, looks like chaos, tastes like chaos, then it probably IS chaos. Bridges says, “Chaos is not a mess, but rather it is the primal state of pure energy to which the person returns for every true new beginning.”
- Coming out of the transition and making a new beginning. This is when people develop the new identity, experience the new energy, and discover the new sense of purpose that makes the change begin to work.
Because transition is a process by which people unplug from the old world and plug into the new world, we can say that transition starts with an ending and finishes with a beginning.
Several important differences between change and transition are overlooked when people think of transition as simply gradual or unfinished change, or when they use change and transition interchangeably.
With a change, you naturally focus on the outcome that the change produces. Transition is different. The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the ending that you’ll have to make to leave the old situation behind.
Situational change hinges on the new thing, but psychological transition depends on letting go of the old reality and the old identity you had before the change took place. The failure to identify and get ready for endings and losses is the largest difficulty for people in transition, according to Bridges. He goes on to say that “The failure to provide help with endings and losses leads to more problems for organizations in transition than anything else.”
So, BIG questions for us, then:
1) Where do we believe More To Life people will need to experience endings?
2) How can we help them through that process?
Once you understand that transition begins with letting go of something, you have taken the first step in the task of transition management. Bridges says that the second step is understanding what comes after letting go: the “neutral zone.” This is the psychological no man’s land between the old reality and the new one. It is the time when the old way of doing things is gone but the new way doesn’t feel comfortable – or hasn’t even been applied in its entirety – yet. THIS is where many of us in More To Life are located at this time.
Here are three things to know about this neutral-zone experience:
- Understand it and do not be surprised by it. Be sure to name it for others to know it.
- You may be frightened (or at least bothered) by being in this no man’s land and try to escape it. To abandon the situation, however, is to abort the transition, both personally and organizationally – and to jeopardize the change.
- If you escape prematurely from the neutral zone, you’ll not only compromise the change but also lose a great opportunity. Painful though it is, the neutral zone is the individual’s and the organization’s best chance to be creative, to develop into what they need to become and to renew themselves. The gap between the old and the new is the time when innovation is most possible and when the organization can most easily be revitalized. The neutral zone is thus both a dangerous and an opportune place, and it is the very core of the transition process.
Ending –> neutral zone –> new beginning.
We need all three phases, in that order, for a transition to work. The phases described by Bridges do not happen separately; they often go on at the same time. Endings are going on in one place, in another everything is in neutral-zone chaos, and in yet another place the new beginning is already palpable. Bridges thinks that “Calling them ‘phases’ makes it sound as though they are lined up like rooms in a house.” We can call them ‘processes’, if we like, in order to help people realize that traveling through these three aspects of transition is not linear. What is true is that the transition cannot be completed until all three have taken place.