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7 Actions to Manage Transitions

Upcoming business merger? Big shift in strategic direction? Organizational realignment? To move forward successflly, executives must not only lead change, they must manage transition.

Leading change is about gaining willing followers and keeping their commitment to follow a new vision. Efforts at leading change, however, can be inconsequential, if not outright disastrous, unless you also manage transition. Yet managing transition is often the most neglected part of a change initiative.

There is a difference between change and transition. Change is an observable event that often occurs very quickly – e.g. you get a major promotion to a new level of responsibility. Transition is an inner state – how long it takes you to learn that new job. Transitions are challenging due to the amount of energy it takes to learn new behaviors and make emotional re-adjustments. (see the previous article, Worry About Transitions, Not Change).

So how do you manage transition? Following are seven actions to help leaders successfully navigate the shoals of transition while leading a change initiative.

Communicate, Communicate, then Communicate Some More
Major change creates a hunger for information that resembles a bottomless pit, especially if that change has potentially negative consequences. Rule of thumb – take whatever level of communication would seem to be enough and increase it by a factor of 100.

Another critically important step for leaders is to safeguard integrity. Never make promises that you can’t deliver or can’t control. It’s much better to admit that you don’t know something, but provide a framework for how you will communicate when you do know, than to make guesses, or worse, give false reassurances.

Make Procedures and Processes Temporary
A challenge in managing transition is getting people to adopt changes in everyday procedures, work processes, and organizational structures. People are often reluctant to invest in new procedures that appear imperfect in the face of an uncertain future, or adopt the attitude of, “Why bother? It will just change again in six months anyway.” This attitude comes from an implicit expectation that processes and structures are naturally permanent.

Explicitly declaring processes or structures as temporary can set a more realistic expectation and make buy-in easier by setting up the expectation of future change. In fact, I encourage leaders to always look at work processes and structures from a “life-cycle” perspective, building into their design how they will be changed or replaced.

Match Your Actions to the Current ‘State’ of Transition
In a time of significant change, people shift from being in a routine to other transitional states, including ending (a time of dealing with loss), abeyance (a time of waiting and low energy), and starting (high energy looking toward a different future). Consider these ‘states’ rather than ‘stages’ because people don’t necessarily follow them in a set order. Leaders benefit from understanding and assessing their people’s current state of transition, and then making leadership actions congruent with that state.

The ending state especially requires information dissemination, the abeyance state requires structures to help people just get through the day, and the starting phase is the time to engage people in planning. Ending and abeyance states are definitely not the time to establish stretch goals. They are, however, times to expect EAP utilization to skyrocket and to prepare accordingly. The abeyance state may be a good time to pilot innovations on a small scale, whereas starting is a time to gain some solid successes quickly.

Leaders often get in trouble by assuming that everyone in the organization is in the same state of transition they are. Rarely is this the case. Since they have more control over the change, leaders are typically in a starting frame of mind long before others in their organization. Executives should pay extra attention to mid-level managers, who are often caught between leaders in a high state of readiness for change (starting), while trying to manage a group of people still struggling with an ending state.

Deal with Emotions Just as it’s important to make actions congruent with particular transition states, likewise, savvy leaders make emotional responses congruent as well. If there ever was a time that emotional intelligence is needed, it’s in a time of transition. Leaders who can validate the feelings people have in an ending state will find it easier to tap and leverage the excitement of a new beginning.

Ensure Time for Real Conversations
An hour spent discussing a thorny issue, even when there is no available action to take, might save days of productivity lost stewing over it. Furthermore, having healthy conversations in formal settings is a sure-fire way to cultivate healthy informal conversations – a sign of a healthy company culture. (I encourage leaders to honor dissension and disagreement, but to immediately address toxic dysfunctional behavior and unethical conduct.)

Mark Major Changes and Celebrate Milestones
Although it occurred years ago when Burroughs Wellcome was merging to create Glaxo-Wellcome, to this day I still hear about the impact of an event aimed at saying good-bye to the Burroughs’ unicorn logo. It clearly helped employees make a successful transition to the new company. Likewise, starting is as important to recognize as ending. In my role of mayor, I take ground-breaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies very seriously.

Find the Right Metaphor
Metaphors shape our thinking in powerful ways. Consider a group of people in transition working their last month before their unit closes: While given realities may remain unchanged, what would be the personal and organizational impact if they viewed themselves “on a proud ship making a final voyage” as opposed to “on a sinking ship”? Savvy leaders know that a meaningful metaphor can be just the right that helps people find direction in a time of transition.

listen to podcast on this topic: 7 Leadership Actions to Manage Transitions

by Tom Stevens (c)2008
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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