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Transition as 'the way through'

Transition as 'the way through'

By William Bridges who can be contacted at www.wmbridges.com

1. What is the difference between change and transition?

One of the main points I always try to make in presentations on transition is that it is not the same as change. In organisations, this distinction is confused by the way the word, "transition," is used: they talk about transition teams and a transition plan and transition services—which turn out to be help for when you find yourself out on the street. As I see it, most of these items are really focused on the change that is happening to you, not the transition you are experiencing.

Transition is not just a nice way to say change. It is the inner process through which people come to terms with a change, as they let go of the way things used to be and reorient themselves to the way that things are now. In an organisation, managing transition means helping people to make that difficult process less painful and disruptive.

The recently published The Way of Transition (2001) tells about my own recent journey through transition—triggered off by the death of my first wife, Mondi. In writing the book--and then in discussing it with readers--I came to understand another dimension to transition. I remember particularly a radio show call-in that I had from a man whose wife, like mine, had died of cancer. "I just can't get over it!" he said with great feeling. "How do I get over it?"

As he talked, I had a picture of his wife's death as a high wall that blocked his path, a wall that he was struggling to climb over. That is the way change often feels in our lives: like a barrier across our path, a disruption of our plans, a big hole that's opened up at our feet. Naturally, we look for a way to "get over it."


Getting through transition is not easy, but unlike the change-wall, transition represents a path to follow. To change your attention away from the change-barrier and toward the transition-path, you need to start where the transition itself starts: with letting go of the inner connections you had to the way things were. The question that always helps you to shift your focus from the change to the transition is, "What is it time for me to let go of?"

In the case of my wife's death, what I had to let go of wasn't so much the person I had been married to for 37 years or the marriage we had had. Those were the changes. To cross over the line into the transition, you need to ask yourself what inner relinquishments you'll need to make because of the change. What needs will you have to find other ways to get met? Because of your change, what parts of yourself are now out of date?

If your change was the loss of your job, what might you have to let go of? Let's see: a regular income, a group of colleagues and friends, a regular place to go every morning, a way to use your talents, a way to structure your time, a bunch of plans for the future, a way to get appreciated. You'd also lose an identity--or at least an answer to the question, "What do you do?" Those are the things that losing your job would force you to do without.

So, what is it time for you to let go of? (Yes, I mean you...now) In some area of your life, you are probably in transition right now, so that isn't a hypothetical question. I've always found that asking that question opens up the path I have to follow. It often is a path I'd prefer not to have to follow, but given the change, I don't have much choice. Fortunately, it is also a path that often leads to personal growth.

In what sense, could it be time for you to let go of that particular way to use your talents? In what way are you outgrowing the identity that you've been trading on for these past years? And if you can't get appreciated any longer in your old work situation, is that loss in any sense a timely one?

Such questions give you a place to start, a path to follow. Every one of them suggests some learning, some discovery that may lie ahead. Each of them represents a gate in that change-wall that blocked your path.

I am not suggesting that this is a path that you wanted to take or that you will necessarily find it enjoyable. I am saying that it is a path with meaning for you, that following it will bring you out somewhere. What I am saying is that, since change is a wall and transition the gate in that wall, it's there for you to go through it. Transition represents a path to the next phase of your life.

2. Assessing transition readiness

Some organisational changes go smoothly, while others feel as though they are doomed from the start. While there are always unforeseen events and unavoidable situations that affect how a particular transition unfolds, there are also some general factors that make a transition go more or less smoothly. There are things that encourage people to let go of the old way of doing things; and other things that help people get through the uncertainties between the letting go and the beginning anew; and, finally, other things that make it easier for people to embrace the new way readily.

The assessment instrument that follows comes from years of studying organisations in transition and of seeking out the reasons for the very different fates they encountered. It has not yet been used on enough organizations to generate norms, but as a practical tool it has proved very useful. And so I am sharing it.

This assessment tool can be used in many different ways. An individual who wants a quick take on the organization's readiness can fill it out and get either reassurance or deeper concern from the results. But that is only one person's view, so consider giving it to a cross-section of people. How many? It depends on your purpose. If you are really trying to measure the climate in an organisation before anything is done--and then comparing it to the results after transition-management actions have been taken--you'll probably want as many raters as you can get. But if your concern is just to demonstrate that people are showing some significant wear and tear from the transition that they are going through, then a carefully chosen cross-section dozen or two subjects may suffice.

However many participate, everyone should answer the questions from his or her own point of view. The views expressed here are individual--which is one reason that it may be useful to take them from multiple, and even divergent, perspectives. Anyone answering it should be honest and should resist the temptation to give an expected or the-way-it-ought-to-be answer. It is meant to give you a snapshot of how things are now, not how they'll be when everything falls into place.

Choose one:

___ I am filling out this assessment for the organisation as a whole.

___ I am filling it out for a particular site, department, or other part of our organization. Which one?

And answer this:

The change for which I am assessing our transition-readiness is as follows:



4 = The statement is definitely true or accurate.

3 = The statement is largely (though maybe not completely) accurate or true.

2 = The statement is only partly true or accurate.

1 = This is only occasionally (but not very often) true

0 = The statement is utterly false.

1. ___ Most people think that the change in question is a necessary one.

2. ___ Most people agree that—given the situation—the change represents the best way of dealing with it.

3. ___ The organization's leaders have shown that they are committed to the change.

4. ___ In general, the middle managers are behind the change.

5. ___ So are the supervisors or first-line managers.

6. ___ The details of the change are being communicated to those who will be affected as quickly as it is practical to do so.

7. ___ There are effective ways for employees to feed back their concerns and questions about the change.

8. ___ And those concerns and questions have, thus far, been responded to in a pretty honest and timely way.

9. ___ There aren't a lot of old scars or unresolved issues around here.

10. ___ The organisation has a history of handling change pretty well.

11.___ The organisation's leadership has a history of doing what it says it will do.

12. ___ ...and of saying what it is going to do before it does it.

13. ___ I think that if this is what the leadership wants to do, that they can pull it off successfully.

14. ___ Decisions generally get made in a timely fashion around here.

15. ___When people get new roles or tasks, they can usually count on getting the training and coaching that they needed to do them.

16. ___When faced with new and challenging situations, the organisation forgets turf-issues and gets problems solved.

17. ___ It is safe to take an "intelligent" risk in this organisation; failure in a good cause or for a good reason isn't punished.

18. ___ There is a pretty widely understood vision of what the organisation is seeking to become and to accomplish.

19. ___ While the higher-ranking people obviously get paid more, we feel like we're all in this thing together.

20. ___ People's commitment to their work here is as high as it was a year ago.

21. ___ Although the pace and extent of change around here is great, it is also workable.

22. ___ Management generally practices what it preaches.

23. ___ There is basically no argument about what the organisation's problems are around here.

24. ___ The organisation's leadership generally shows an awareness of and concern for how change will affect the rest of us.

25. ___ People generally understand how things will be different when the change is finished.


Evaluating the Results

If a number of people are filling out this form, add the scores together question-by-question, so that you can say what the "average" answer was on each item, as well as on the assessment as a whole. That way, you can identify weak links in the transition-management chain, as well as areas where things are pretty solid. It is useful to have an impersonal way to evaluate whether people think that the organization has a vision of the future or not—or whether the leadership is trustworthy. These are charged subjects, and it helps to be able to raise them in a way that doesn't blame.

In addition to giving you a read on the organisation's strengths and weaknesses in terms of transition manageability, it can be used to measure changes over time--before-and-after results, to measure the impact of an announcement, an intervention, a problem that arises, a positive development that takes place. It can also measure transition readiness in relation to different changes. And finally, it can also measure differences between the climate in two parts of the organization or at two different levels of the hierarchy.

However you use it--whether informally with a handful of people or in an official all-hands survey--the Transition Readiness Assessment will provide you with objective data to help you prepare for a time of transition, to deal with it, and to measure how well you handled it when it has passed.

Reprinted by permission of William Bridges & Associates www.wmbridges.com

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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

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