Embracing change by managing transitions

Steve Ervin, Ed.D.
Senior Consultant
Apex Innovations, Inc.
Kansas City, Missouri

It has been observed that the only constant in this information age is change. Peak performing organizations and leaders realize that their continued survival is directly proportional to their ability to proactively embrace change. Leaders must face the challenges of leading staff through the ever-shifting terrain of "moving targets and changing rules." How, then, must the leader manage change?

The change process
Change is nothing new; in fact, it's normal. Our world and its inhabitants have been changing ever since our inception. We survive, and some would say thrive, by successfully managing the change we encounter in life. Abraham Lincoln stated, "As our case is new, we must think and act anew." In business, we can either manage change or be managed by it. A significant issue in today's organizational environment is not so much the change, but the speed at which it approaches. As we know, yesterday's information is already old.

Today's leader, if he or she is to be effective, must use a different paradigm for managing change. That paradigm doesn't see change as the enemy. The real challenge in change management then becomes, how does the leader bring the troops on board with the new situation? William Bridges calls this new paradigm "Managing Transitions." In his book Managing Transitions, Bridges states that "Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy, the new system. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external; transition is internal." He goes on to say, "There can be any number of changes, but unless there are transitions, nothing will be different when the dust clears."

It's really not all that complicated; in fact, it's Organization Psychology 101—if change is to happen, it must happen through people, not to them. If positive change is to happen through the team, the leader must be tough on issues and tender on people. While still holding team members accountable, he/she is obliged to take on the role of coach, guiding and helping people through the transition from where the organization is now to its new defined destination. Change management starts with the outcome; transition management starts with wherever the people are.

Managing the transitions

A. Communicate early and often. A key to managing transitions for positive change is to begin with early involvement of the team that will be affected. As the prospective change is being planned and finalized, invite their input. In most cases, nobody knows better how to bring about effective change than the people who are currently doing the work. Inviting the team's input during the early planning phase will assist in creating ownership for the new process.

B. Manage the phases of transition

1. The Ending Phase—helping the team to let go.
  i. Identify who's losing what
 ii. Acknowledge the losses openly and sympathetically
iii. Define what's over and what isn't
iv. Show how the ending ensures continuity of what really matters

2. The Neutral Zone Phase—the old way is gone and the new doesn't feel comfortable yet. The neutral zone between the ending and the new beginning can be both a dangerous place and an opportune place, depending upon how it's managed.
  i. Normalize the neutral zone—"it's natural to feel anxious"
 ii. Create temporary systems to assist in getting through this phase of the transition.
iii. Strengthen intra-group connections
iv. Listen actively—make it "safe" for team members to express their concerns.

3. The New Beginning Phase—can be made only if an ending has been made and some time has been spent in the neutral zone. Don't start with the beginning, finish with it.
  i. Be consistent
 ii. Ensure quick successes
iii. Look for ways to symbolize the new identity
iv. Celebrate the team's success

C. Build On a Spirit of Continuous Improvement. Expecting, training and rewarding an attitude of continuous improvement with the team will encourage them to continually seek out, accept and implement the next positive change.

For the leader facing change, the importance of focusing on people is critical to success. According to Dr. Eric Allenbaugh, an international organizational development consultant, "what we focus on determines what we miss". Too many times, leaders focus on being "the boss" and what needs to get done. They miss the fact that what needs to get done can only get done through people, respecting them and holding them accountable at once.

As leaders and coaches it is imperative to focus on understanding people and how they get work done. This will require educating and training in the science and techniques of organizational behavior. After all, the nub of any project is about individuals carrying out their jobs responsibly. Embracing change is all about focusing on, respecting and holding team members accountable.

Steve Ervin can be reached at (816) 561-7787 or at steve.ervin@apex-innovations.com.

The publication The Leadership Challenge (3rd Ed.) is grounded in extensive research and based on interviews with leaders at all levels in public and private organizations. The Public Works Communication Manual (3rd Ed.) is designed to help you through the tough demands of communicating properly in a variety of situations. Both can be ordered online at www.apwa.net/bookstore or call the Member Services Hotline at (800) 848-APWA, ext. 5254.