The sweet little girl in the photo is my granddaughter, Lucy. Her smile that lights the world has been temporarily replaced with an explosion of concern. Lucy’s Mom just rocked her world by removing a basket of treats, disrupting her plans for a blissful experience with unlimited chocolate. Lucy’s expression captures what we all consider when confronted with unplanned change: Wait! What just happened here? A minute ago, I had everything all figured out. Then, the senior woman in the house changed my plans. Now what? As we mature, we are socialized not to show a face like Lucy’s. But that doesn’t mean that change, even positive change, doesn’t bring the same confusion and disappointment. We simply learn not to show it.
People leading change often forget what William Bridges observed decades ago in his classic work Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Bridges observes that it’s not change that’s so challenging, it’s transition. He defines change as the situation, i.e. the new decision, the new job, the new rules, the new plan. Transition is the psychological process we undergo to come to terms with the change. Change is external – open and apparent for everyone. Transition is internal. We don’t see the personal turmoil of transition, unless people like Lucy make it obvious. When we don’t see the turmoil, we forget that it’s there. Or, we pretend it’s not there so we don’t have to deal with it. The mistake of focusing only on the change and not the transition has derailed otherwise positive change or made it much harder than necessary.
Change is often presented as a contrast between a “bad” past and a “good” future. Thus, the rationale goes, we’ll eagerly make the sacrifices necessary once we understand the potential. What this contrast ignores is that the past was good for some people. They figured out the game. Things got easier. They learned how to succeed. Change takes away ideas and behaviors as comfortable as sweatpants on a Saturday morning. No number of business case presentations on the necessity for change will make people who prized the past feel better about what they may lose.
Keys to Successful Transition
If you haven’t picked up Managing Transitions in a while, or ever, it’s a rich guide filled with examples and ideas to help people navigate the badlands between where they are and where they are going. My key recommendations from this work are summarized below.
1. Plan for change and transition. Change is discreet, episodic and impersonal. It’s described in plans or timelines everyone follows. Transition is complex, emotional and personal. It’s expressed in reactions to endings, losses or sacrifices.
2. Recognize transition travels at the speed of each individual. Transition progress is measured in the unique journeys of people. It doesn’t respond to quarter end deadlines or change milestones. Business case presentations, pep talks or threats won’t accelerate transitions. Helping people figure out how they can succeed in the new world, and some patience, will.
3. Celebrate transition victories. It doesn’t matter if you thought “they” should have adjusted faster or with greater ease. What matters is that your talented associates are learning to give up the personal success of the old to try out the promise of the new. Small steps are big deals. Treat them that way.
The good news is both change and transition are manageable. That’s good news, because the benefits of change are realized through transition. With support, understanding and patience, people will make the private conversions necessary to move from endings to beginnings. Just like with Lucy, it’s possible to see those smiles again.