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How to Manage Change and Transition

Effective leaders consistently embrace and manage change in order to improve organizational effectiveness. According to William Bridges, author of Managing Transitions, change is the event and transition is the psychological process one goes through when experiencing change.  Even if the change is perceived as a good change, there is still a process we have to go through to accept it fully.

Three Phases of Transition

Bridges separates transition into three phases:Transition

Ending – Psychological transition starts with an ending.  It depends on letting go of the old reality and the old

identity one had before the change took place.

Neutral Zone – Transition continues in a state that is neither the old nor the new.  It is kind of an emotional wilderness or “no man’s land” where everything is up in the air.

Beginning – People make a new beginning only if they have first made an ending and spent some time in the neutral zone.  The beginning occurs when new direction takes hold and involves new understandings, new attitudes, and new ways of doing things.

Understanding that change is the event and transition is the process everyone must go through, is crucial as you implement the change management process.  There are five basic steps.

5 Steps for Managing Change and Transition

Step 1 – Establish a Transition Management Team

This team should be a diagonal slice of the organization or the affected area and should include a diversity of technical skill and hierarchical levels, promoters of change as well as resisters, and formal and informal leaders.  This transition management team should be responsible for managing the remaining processes.

Step 2 – Clearly Establish the Reason for the Change

Many managers feel they must sell solutions to the problems of change . . . don’t.  Instead, establish the reasons for change and avoid trying to fix the problems by yourself.  Sell the problems and allow the transition team to develop solutions.  Promote a broader understanding of the issues in order to promote greater ownership of the problems and more creative solutions.

You will need to be ready to constantly respond to, “Things used to be just fine around here, why are we doing this?” or, “It wasn’t broke, why are we fixing it?”

Step 3 – Establish a Communication Process

The transition team must be responsible for regularly and clearly communicating the progress of the change effort. This communication should clearly map the expected changes and be centered around the issues of security (i.e. pay, position, or working conditions).  The ideas of quality, customer satisfaction, and increased productivity mean very little unless it is clearly shown how they will enhance worker security.

Constantly review the reasons for the change.  Don’t fall back on “the boss wants us to do it,” or “if we don’t do it, we’re fired.”  Few organizations can sustain change with such motivators.

Step 4 – Create a Plan

Make a timeline composed of as many necessary changes as you can think of.  Establish relative dates and assign responsibilities.  Once the plan has been established, go back through the timeline and add key communication points to help manage the transition.

Remember, transition usually begins as the changes end.  Therefore, manage the ending as follows:

  • Begin measuring what’s important
  • Identify who is losing what
  • Don’t be alarmed at overreaction
  • Acknowledge losses openly and sympathetically
  • Expect and accept grieving
  • Define what is over and what is not
  • Mark the endings
  • Treat the past with respect
  • Monitor for movement into the neutral zone.

The plan must guide your organization beyond the end of the outward changes.  Many organizations make the mistake of stopping here.  This is natural because it seems that change has ended and it’s time to rest.  Be sure to continue managing the transition from the ending, through the neutral zone, and on to a new beginning.

Step 5 – Manage the Neutral Zone

The neutral zone is probably the toughest phase to manage.  Expect increased anxiety in the organization and reduced motivation.   You may see a rise in absenteeism and illness.  Don’t be surprised if old organizational weaknesses re-emerge, employees feel overloaded, confused and many tasks go undone.  Some organizations experience an escalation of polarization, conflict, sabotage, and half-hearted effort.  One more thing to look out for is doubt – self-doubt and doubt in leadership.

By using the appropriate change management leadership style, understanding that transition is a psychological process everyone must go through after a change event, and following a basic change management process, you will greatly improve your chances of leading a successful project.

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