Managing Change – and Transition – in an Organizational Setting

by , May 12, 2012

Ruminations on change surround us: “the only constant is change” (Heraclitus); “change is the law of life” (John F. Kennedy); “if you don’t like something, change it” (Maya Angelou); “a change is gonna come” (Sam Cooke). And yet, with all of our conversations about the inevitability of change, we are often ill-equipped to manage it, let alone lead ourselves and others through it.

Participants in the Strong Field Project Leadership Development Program (LDP) – which we are working on for the Blue Shield of California Foundation – grappled with the question of how to manage and lead through change at a recent convening. For these leaders, the challenge isn’t the change event itself – whether it was individual change (more staff to supervise, expanding fund development responsibilities), organizational change (systems implementation, emerging programmatic strategies), or external change (shifting funder priorities, dynamic political landscape). The challenge lies, rather, in the transition– the emotional and psychological process people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the change event.

Indeed, according to research by Peter Senge (author of The Fifth Discipline and Director of the Center for Organizational Learning at the MIT Sloan School of Management), over 70% of all organizational change efforts fail. Why? Because, more often than not, organizational attention is focused solely on the external event. What is ignored or downplayed is how to lead staff, teams, and the entire organization through transition. Getting people through transition is essential if the change is actually going to work. To that end, the LDP participants explored what William Bridges describes as the three stages of transition: 

  • Ending: letting go and dealing with loss
  • Neutral Zone: the in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational
  • New Beginning: new identities and new purpose emerge

In doing so, they examined what feelings staff might have in each stage and why experiencing all three stages is critical to ensuring that change takes root. Most importantly, this cohort of leaders identified various strategies for leading themselves and others through transition. Here are four of the tips that emerged from their discussions for managing change in an organization:

  1. Clarify and communicate the purpose and outcome of the change
  2. Acknowledge what people might be losing as a result of the change and, to the extent possible, honor the past
  3. Provide relevant information as the transition progresses, including information about any temporary policies, organizational groupings, or reporting relationships that will help us get through the transition
  4. Encourage thoughtful experimentation and innovation during the transition

What other strategies have you implemented to lead your organization through change and transition?

By Marissa Tirona, Senior Project Director

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Recommended readings on managing change:

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Photo credit: Image courtesy of Sean MacEntee via Flickr Creative Commons

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