Transitions by William and Susan Bridges

Rating

2nd Edition: 9/10

3rd Edition: 10/10

Best Line #1: People are really different—they aren’t just “defective” versions of yourself.

Best Line #2: People seem to overreact to a change when they are reacting more than we are. Changes cause transitions which cause losses and it is the losses, not the changes, that people react to.

Good Transitions, Bad Transitions

A friend offered me this book at a time when I was dealing with significant change. The changes were threatening to force me into a transition of sorts. The changes, in other words, posed the risk of changing me.

Reading this book helped me understand how that happens. It helps me understand the difference between change and transition. This, in turn, has given me an improved view of change. Is change hard? Not anymore thanks to this book.

Call it “Rollin with the Flow”. Call it a tribute to the wisdom in the classic song by Charlie Rich where he sings “I ain’t ever growing old, I keep on rollin’ with the flow”. What does this mean? Never growing old? I think it means that change isn’t really hard and it transition isn’t always inevitable; in this song, Charlie faces the biggest change of them all, age, and it does not spark a transition. As he puts it, “While guys my age are raising kids, I’m raisin’ hell just like I did.” Whether good or bad, he rolls with those changes as if he hadn’t aged a day. Other “guys his age” transition to a new phase. He does not.

It’s a great song.

The point is that those who have a strong identity or a strong goal can make the distinction between superficial changes that don’t affect them, which are the majority of changes, and the real threats or opportunities that have genuine impact, which are rare and probably harder to spot.

There are transitions we all want to make. Every New Year’s resolution points to that fact. When we fall short, it’s because we didn’t let go of the bad habits or paradigms that fuel the unwanted behavior. Monday’s article focuses on the importance of starting with the letting go.

Great Beginnings Are Endings

But there are unwanted transitions, too. They are hard to recognize because we don’t want to see them. Every instance where we decide to give up something is the mark of a transition. We might give up junk food. Which is good.

We might give up hope. Which is bad.

I written before about what happens to the quality of our thinking over time. Whether it’s due to age or deep expertise, we get to a point where we trade curiosity for absolutes and questions for declarations. In this instance, we’ve let go of our willingness to work within our System 2 mode of thought. That sparks a transition. Not a good one, either. Tuesday’s article focuses on unsolicited change and what to do about it:

What To Do When Change Happens To You

Then there is more to understand about the stages of change. This gets us to the crucial idea of the neutral zone. I think this is one of the most helpful concepts I discovered in 2018. So Wednesday’s article introduces the idea and Thursday’s article explores it more deeply:

The False Narrative Of The Highlight Reel

How To Dance With Uncertainty

So what’s left to say? Isn’t this enough to compel people to buy the book and explore their own transitions? I hope so. But before you go, understand that there are two very different editions that you should consider.

The original version of Transitions, written exclusively by William Bridges, has a “Revised 25th Anniversary” edition published in 2004 that is highly recommended for those interested in self-improvement. It’s the text I’ve used the most this week.

But there is an equally-great version written by William Bridges and Susan Bridges published in 2017 and also labeled the “25th Anniversary” edition on Amazon. It’s confusing. Just note that this particular version is very different and applies the insights to the realm of organizational change. It is also very good but mostly suited for those in management roles. Here are links to both:

Transitions 2nd Edition for self-improvement

Transitions 3rd Edition for organizational development

I’ll try to give this latest version some proper attention.

A Manager’s Responsibility With Transitions

Written for the workplace, the 2017 edition is much better than I expected. Having read the previous edition, I assumed the basic insights would simply transfer into a slightly different context. They do and yet there is much more that surprised me.

Case in point, when I see transition from an self-improvement point of view, I understand quite well that there is pain in the changes we seek. No pain, no gain. And unwanted changes are painful, too, and it’s vital that we fight against those changes so that we maintain our identity.

However … when that unwanted change is coming at you from the workplace, fighting those changes can be disastrous, foolhardy, and occasionally misguided. I’ve seen it firsthand on more than one occasion: someone resists the changes in the workplace to such a degree that they resign in protest. Only to learn, later, that the cruel, capricious, horrible, awful, mean changes weren’t remotely as bad as they were made out to be. The people who remain at their jobs “rollin’ with the flow” look back at it in future months and see it as a good thing.

Makes one think the resignation was an overreaction, huh? But as our authors point out, this is a faulty view. Consider the line below; it’s one of the best expressions of empathy I’ve read:

People seem to overreact to a change when they are reacting more than we are. Changes cause transitions which cause losses and it is the losses, not the changes, that people react to.

That first line is absolutely fantastic. We just people’s reactions based on how we, ourselves, think we would react. This is a selfish, ignorant view. Natural, too. So don’t beat yourself up. Instead, consider the fact that, as written above, the individuals affected are experiencing a very different situation than you.

We managers often forget that there is a whole group of people who occupy three-dimensional space with us. We occasionally fail to recognize that those other people come into work every day with a distinct set of views, expectations, and interpretations of their work. When they are a bit off-course with something in their work, be it a quality issue or a behavioral issue, we know we have to provide some guidance or correction to get their work back in order. That makes sense to us. That’s what management is all about.

But when we instigate change, and people react poorly to our ideas or actions within that change, we somehow forget that we—the managers—are responsible for understanding the person’s frustration and, frankly, helping them succeed. It’s not as simple as we sometimes think. It isn’t “get on the bus or get off”. If that’s where we stand, as managers, then we’re not really managers. We’re just bosses. Bad, ham-fisted, impatient, mechanical bosses.

Here is where the false dichotomy can be raised: “But Norm, I can’t make people support the change I want to create. If they can’t get on-board, that’s their choice. Not mine.”

This is true, of course. And the whole “right people on the bus” analogy from Jim Collins makes a lot of sense in this regard. There is such a thing as a bad employee, a stubborn, obstinate, insubordinate employee. But if you start to see such behavior at the onset of a change, chances are that this reaction isn’t the stuff of a bad employee. It’s the result of a bad start to a proposed change. And a bad start to a proposed change is entirely our fault, fellow managers.

With that in mind, the 2017 edition of Transitions is the best guide I’ve found on organizational development. And transitions. And perhaps, when combined with the 2004 edition, the best book for gaining empathy for other people’s struggles when change happens to them.

It’s not enough to understand the mechanics of change from another person’s view. The classic book Who Moved My Cheese? is a bit too simplistic in that regard. Fine book, good start, but this one’s significantly better. Applying the three-stage transition model to the organization provides a wealth of knowledge. Mixing in the authors’ model for the life cycle of an organization makes the whole thing sensible. These two models generate what the authors refer to as the Five Laws of Organizational Development. I’ll offer them here and politely suggest you buy the book to learn more.

First Law of Organizational Development: those who were most at home with the necessary activities and arrangements of one phase are the ones who are the most likely to experience the subsequent phase a a severe personal setback.

Second Law of Organizational Development: the successful outcome of any phase of organizational development triggers its demise by creating challenges that it is not equipped to handle.

Third Law of Organizational Development: in any significant transition, the thing that the organization needs to let go of is the very thing that got it this far.

Fourth Law of Organizational Development: whenever there is painful, troubled time in the organization, a development transition is probably going on.

Fifth Law of Organizational Development: during the first half of the life cycle, organizations become concerned with their stability through the Making-It Stage.

Conclusion

This is the second featured book that has focused exclusively on change. The first book, Switch, was reviewed a few weeks ago and can be found here. I called it the “Best Book for Creating Change”. It’s still true. Switch offers great tactics for initiating an effort. The insights are more about persuasion and instilling momentum. So for people who are resistant to change (i.e. basically everyone), this is the book to get you started.

Transitions, meanwhile, is the “Best Book for Making Change Successful.” This is the book you read next once the tactics from Switch leave you battered, bruised, and confused. If you’re looking at self-improvement, read the 2004 version this summer when your New Year’s Resolution has brought you to a state of exhaustion and uncertainty (i.e., the neutral zone). If you’re looking for change in the workplace, especially as a manager, read the 2017 edition now. Right now. And reread it at every point of difficulty. The 2017 edition is more like a workbook. It’s a pocket consultant that prescribes great actions at every step and great models for  understanding and anticipating the turbulence you’ll face.

And finally, if you’re looking to level up on all fronts, read them both. Here’s links to each version from Amazon:

Transitions 3rd Edition for self-improvement

Transitions 4th Edition for organizational development

Mental Models and Principles

Change is situational. Transition is psychological. It is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and com eot terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.

Three phases of transition: ending, losing, letting go; the neutral zone; the new beginning.

Transitions begin with an ending and finish with a beginning.

The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the ending that you’ll have to make to leave the old situation behind.  

Organizations overlook that letting-go process completely, however, and do nothing about the feelings of loss it generates.

The failure to identify and get ready for endings and losses is the largest difficulty for people in transition.

Inwardly, you can find yourself struggling for a time in a state that was neither the old nor the new. It was a kind of emotional wilderness, a time when it wasn’t quite clear who you were or what was real.

If you don’t understand and expect it, you’re more likely to try to rush through or even bypass the neutral zone–and be discouraged when you find that doesn’t work. You may mistakenly conclude that the confusion you feel there is a sign that something is wrong with you.

The positive function of the neutral zone will be discussed further so let me simply say that the gap between the old and the new is the time when innovation is most possible and when the organization can most easily be revitalized.

Letting go, repatterning, and making a new beginning: together these processes reorient and renew people when things are changing all around them.

Most managers and leaders put 10 percent off their energy into selling the problem and 90 percent into selling the solution to the problem. People aren’t in the market for solutions they don’t see, acknowledge, and understand.

Let them see the problem firsthand. This is part of selling the problem. As long as you are the only one fielding complaints, poor service is going to be your problem no matter how much you try to get your subordinates to acknowledge its importance.

Start holding regular team meetings. The plan had been to hold meetings every two weeks. We changed that immediately. The team met every morning for ten minutes for the first two months. Such frequent clustering can override old habits and the old self-images and build new relations that teamwork requires.

Don’t argue with what you hear. In the first place, it will stop the conversation and you won’t learn any more. You’ll also convince them that you don’t understand them—or, worse yet, that you don’t care what they feel and think.

Loss is a subjective experience and your “objective” view is irrelevant.

People seem to overreact to a change when they are reacting more than we are. Changes cause transitions which cause losses and it is the losses, not the changes, that people react to; second, it’s a piece of their world that is being lost, not a piece of ours, and we often react angrily ourselves when it’s part of our own world that is being lost. Being reasonable is much easier if you have little or nothing at stake.

Overreaction is normal and not really overreaction at all. Learn to look for the loss behind the loss and deal with that underlying issue. You’ll get much further if you can show people that Loss A is really unrelated to the dreaded, larger Loss B than if you simply try to talk them out of their reaction to Loss A.

The question to ask yourself is this: What can I give back to balance what’s been taken away? Status, turf, team, membership, recognition, roles? If people feel that the change has robbed them of control over their futures, can you find some way to give them back a feeling of control?

Managers risk three equally serious and difficult reactions when they do not specify what is over and what isn’t:

  1. People don’t dare to stop doing anything. They try to do all the old things and the new things. Soon they burn out with the overload.
  2. People make their own decisions about what to discard and what to keep, and the result is inconsistency and chaos.
  3. People toss out everything that was done in the past and the baby disappears witht he bathwater.

Show how endings ensure the continuity of what really matters.

The status quo is just an innovation brought about by a transition that people have forgotten.

While the first task of change management is to understand the desired outcome and how to get there, the first task of transition management is to convince people to leave home.

Dangers of the neutral zone include the tendency for people’s anxiety to rise and their motivation to fall. They feel disoriented and self-doubting, resentful and protective.

Old weaknesses, previously patched over or compensated for, remerge in full flower in the neutral zone. (anger, drinking, bad coping mechanisms)

“I had an immense advantage over many others dealing with the problems. I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to bias my mind and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.” Henry Bessemer

The task in the neutral zone is two-fold: first, get your people through this phase of transition in one piece; and second, capitalize on all the confusion by encouraging them to be innovative.

One of the most difficult aspects of the neutral zone is that most people don’t understand it. They expect to be able to move straight from the old to the new.

Moses’ long journey through the wilderness is both less daunting and more applicable to your situation: the outlook, attitudes, values, self-images, and ways of thinking that were functional in the past have to “die” before people can be ready for life in the present.

Moses, with the help of Jethro, reorganized his decision-making process in the neutral zone by regrouping people into new units under new, temporary decision makers—”judges” in the parlance of his day.

Set short-range goals for people to aim toward and establish checkpoints along the way for longer-term outcomes that you are seeking.

NETMA syndrome: an employee condition that affects the executive as, by the acronym, Nobody Ever Tells Me Anything.   

When orders decrease, set people to work painting the factory.

Look at the neutral zone as a chance to do something new and interesting and to pursue that goal with energy and courage.

Use the neutral zone as a time to redesign how you do what you do. You’ll emerge from the wilderness both stronger and better adapted to your new environment.

The shift out of the neutral zone comes from an inner repatterning and sorting process in which old and no longer appropriate habits are discarded and newly appropriate patterns of thought and action are developed.

Beginnings reactivate some of the old anxieties that were originally triggered by the ending. Beginnings establish once and for all that an ending was real.

People are really different—they aren’t just “defective” versions of yourself.

To make a new beginning, people need the Four P’s: the purpose, a picture, the plan, and a part to play.

A purpose must be real, not make-believe. When budget cuts are described as a way to “improve operations”, you’re simply sowing mistrust and cynicism at a time when you’re going to need all the commitment and energy you can muster.

The purpose needs to grow out of the actual situation faced by the organization and the organization’s nature and resources.

Do not overwhelm people with a picture that is so hard for them to identify with that they become intimidated rather than excited.

Align yourself and your people on one side and the problems on the other.

If a transition is mishandled, we usually say “the change didn’t work” or that it “fell short of our expectations.” What we ought to say is that we got the people out of Egypt but they’re still wandering somewhere in the wilderness.

First Law of Organizational Development: those who were most at home with the necessary activities and arrangements of one phase are the ones who are the most likely to experience the subsequent phase a a severe personal setback.

Second Law of Organizational Development: the successful outcome of any phase of organizational development triggers its demise by creating challenges that it is not equipped to handle.

Third Law of Organizational Development: in any significant transition, the thing that the organization needs to let go of is the very thing that got it this far.

Fourth Law of Organizational Development: whenever there is painful, troubled time in the organization, a development transition is probably going on.

Fifth Law of Organizational Development: during the first half of the life cycle, organizations become concerned with their stability through the Making-It Stage.

In the institution phase of their existence, organizations become so concerned with the stability of their own practices and the sanctity of their values that they end up generating the very problems that initiate the transition to the next phase of organizational life: closing in.

As an institution closes in, the concern for rules and policy becomes an obsession with showing that everything has been done properly and that expecting anything other than the unhappy outcome that actually occurred is in itself improper.

The real hallmark of Closing In is that the organization seals itself off from effective communication with its environment and becomes preoccupied with its own inner workings to the point where operations are ritualized into secret and magical acts.

What most organizations need is not fixing but renewal.

Organizational renewal always involves getting a new central idea around which to build the organization’s activities and structures.

GRASS: Guilt, Resentment, Anxiety, Self-Absorption, and Stress. These are the five real and measurable costs of not managing transition effectively.