Change and Transition

By Steve Zuieback · Posted Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Working with Organizational Change and Transition - William Bridges Model

Change versus Transition

The topic of managing change in organizations has always been of critical interest to all leaders and consultants. I think this has only been amplified due to the accelerated rate of change. 

There are many models of change. My favorite is the William Bridges Model of Change and Transition. It is simple to understand and a very practical way of talking to people about change.

In this model, Bridges makes a large distinction between the issue of change – which he calls events – and transition. Transition is the psychological adjustment that people go through in accommodating to the change event.

Phases of Transition

Click here to see my talk on the William Bridges model of Change and Transition. In its simplest form, transition can be described as involving three phases. The first phase is the Ending Zone. In this zone people need to both grieve what has been lost and to identify and celebrate the learning around what can get carried forward.

Reactions to Endings are Normal

It is critical to understand that a very large percentage of the population going through a change, if they have not been directly involved in developing the new change event, will naturally and normally be in the Ending Zone. They are not resisters or difficult people. The Ending Zone is the most important area to pay attention to and is often overlooked. Too often a leader or leadership team just wants people to be “adults” and move on. 

Paying attention to the Ending Zone involves allowing people to talk about their feelings as a group, honoring and valuing the parts of the system that are being left because of the new change initiative and consciously identifying the learning that should carry forward in the organization. This may involve repeated meetings and conversations until at least 50% of the group affected indicates they are ready to move on. The other 50% should still be given time in one-on-one sessions to continue to grieve and make meaning of the transition. According to the model, a small percentage of the population may never adjust and they should be assisted with finding other opportunities either within or outside the organization.

If this phase of transition is not supported by leadership, feelings of resentment, misunderstandings and violation may persist and spread in the organization.To hear two stories on some of the pitfalls of the Ending Zone, click here.

You Can’t Share Too Much Information in the Neutral Zone

In the second phase, called the Neutral Zone, people are ready to approach the new change event but they often feel incompetent or incapable of successfully implementing the new changes. People in this phase often complain about not having enough information, and so the key strategies are to provide abundant information, specific training and tailored support.

In this phase of transition people are often thrown into disequilibrium – a loss of stability and surety about what they are doing.

Be Careful, New Beginnings Might Become the New Status Quo

The third phase is called the New Beginning. In this phase the vast majority of people are comfortable in operating in the new change event. In some ways it is like a new status quo. For systems that are not used to change, this might not be a desired result. People can quickly become comfortable once they feel confident and see positive results and throw up resistance to any further change or refinements.

My Take on the 3 Phases of Transition

If I were to redesign this model, I would rename the Neutral Zone to Opportunity Zone and New Beginnings to New Status Quo. You might say, “What‘s in a name?” I think language is essential.

In my experience, the companies that are most successful in rapid change and adaptation are the ones that have redesigned the Neutral Zone to the Opportunity Zone. It is not a zone or phase to just “get through”, but one in which you want to stay in.

GE – General Electric – is probably a prime example of this point. They have designed a culture that thrives on constant change and innovation. They “wrote the book” on the balance between “above and below the green line.” This balance allows a company or organization to have great stability (principles, values, identity, processes, communication and transparency) in an environment of ever changing strategies, product development and adaptation. In other words, they have learned how to thrive in the Opportunity Zone and that allows for very rapid adaptation. This type of culture, supported by their priorities of leadership, communication and deep ongoing reflection, allows them to stay in the Opportunity Zone.

“Life is pleasant. Death is peaceful. It's the transition that's troublesome.”

                                    Issac Asimov

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