is nothing new to leaders, or their constituents. We
understand by now that organizations cannot be just
endlessly "managed," replicating yesterday's practices
to achieve success. Business conditions change and
yesterday's assumptions and practices no longer work.
There must be innovation, and innovation means change.
Yet the thousands of books, seminars,
and consulting engagements purporting to help "manage
change" often fall short. These tools tend to neglect
the dynamics of personal and organizational transition
that can determine the outcome of any change effort. As
a result, they fail to address the leader's need to
coach others through the transition process. And they
fail to acknowledge the fact that leaders themselves
usually need coaching before they can effectively coach
In years past, perhaps, leaders could
simply order changes. Even today, many view it as a
straightforward process: establish a task force to lay
out what needs to be done, when, and by whom. Then all
that seems left for the organization is (what an
innocent sounding euphemism!) to implement the plan.
Many leaders imagine that to make a change work, people
needed only to follow the plan's implicit map, which
shows how to get from here (where things stand now) to
there (where they'll stand after the plan is
implemented). "There" is also where the organization
needs to be if it is to survive, so anyone who has
looked at the situation with a reasonably open mind can
see that the change isn't optional. It is essential.
Fine. But then, why don't people "Just
Do It"? And what is the leader supposed to do when they
Just Don't Do It -- when people do not make the
changes that need to be made, when deadlines are missed,
costs run over budget, and valuable workers get so
frustrated that when a headhunter calls, they jump ship.
Leaders who try to analyze this
question after the fact are likely to review the change
effort and how it was implemented. But the details of
the intended change are often not the issue. The planned
outcome may have been the restructuring of a group
around products instead of geography, or speeding up
product time-to-market by 50 percent. Whatever it was,
the change that seemed so obviously necessary has
languished like last week's flowers.
That happens because transition occurs
in the course of every attempt at change. Transition is
the state that change puts people into. The change
is external (the different policy, practice, or
structure that the leader is trying to bring about),
while transition is internal (a psychological
reorientation that people have to go through before the
change can work).
The trouble is, most leaders imagine
that transition is automatic -- that it occurs simply
because the change is happening. But it doesn't. Just
because the computers are on everyone's desk doesn't
mean that the new individually accessed customer
database is transforming operations the way the
consultants promised it would. And just because two
companies (or hospitals or law firms) are now fully
"merged" doesn't mean that they operate as one or that
the envisioned cost savings will be realized.
Even when a change is showing signs
that it may work, there is the issue of timing, for
transition happens much more slowly than change. That is
why the ambitious timetable that the leader laid out to
the board turns out to have been wildly optimistic: it
was based on getting the change accomplished, not
on getting the people through the transition.
Transition takes longer because it
requires that people undergo three separate processes,
and all of them are upsetting.
The first requirement is that people have to let go of
the way that things -- and, worse, the way that they
themselves -- used to be. As the folk-wisdom puts it,
"You can't steal second base with your foot on first."
You have to leave where you are, and many people have
spent their whole lives standing on first base. It isn't
just a personal preference you are asking them to give
up. You are asking them to let go of the way of engaging
or accomplishing tasks that made them successful in the
past. You are asking them to let go of what feels to
them like their whole world of experience, their sense
of identity, even "reality" itself.
On paper it may have been a logical
shift to self-managed teams, but it turned out to
require that people no longer rely on a supervisor to
make all decisions (and to be blamed when things go
wrong). Or it looked like a simple effort to merge two
work-groups, but in practice it meant that people no
longer worked with their friends or reported to people
whose priorities they understood.
Shifting into Neutral.
Even after people have let go of their old ways, they
find themselves unable to start anew. They are entering
the second difficult phase of transition. We call it the
neutral zone, and that in-between state is so
full of uncertainty and confusion that simply coping
with it takes most of people's energy. The neutral zone
is particularly difficult during mergers or
acquisitions, when careers and policy decisions and the
very "rules of the game" are left in limbo while the two
leadership groups work out questions of power and
The neutral zone is uncomfortable, so
people are driven to get out of it. Some people try to
rush ahead into some (often any) new situation,
while others try to back-pedal and retreat into the
past. Successful transition, however, requires that an
organization and its people spend some time in the
neutral zone. This time in the neutral zone is not
wasted, for that is where the creativity and energy of
transition are found and the real transformation takes
place. It's like Moses in the wilderness: it was there,
not in the Promised Land, that Moses was given the Ten
Commandments; and it was there, and not in The Promised
Land, that his people were transformed from slaves to a
strong and free people (see "Lessons
from the Wilderness").
Today, it won't take 40 years, but a
shift to self-managed teams, for instance, is likely to
leave people in the neutral zone for six months, and a
major merger may take two years to emerge from the
neutral zone. The change can continue forward on
something close to its own schedule while the
transition is being attended to, but if the
transition is not dealt with, the change may collapse.
People cannot do the new things that the new situation
requires until they come to grips with what is being
Some people fail to get through transition because they
do not let go of the old ways and make an ending; others
fail because they become frightened and confused by the
neutral zone and don't stay in it long enough for it to
do its work on them. Some, however, do get through these
first two phases of transition, but then freeze when
they face the third phase, the new beginning. For that
third phase requires people to begin behaving in a new
way, and that can be disconcerting -- it puts one's
sense of competence and value at risk. Especially in
organizations that have a history of punishing mistakes,
people hang back during the final phase of transition,
waiting to see how others are going to handle the new
Helping Leaders to
the transition process is a requirement for almost any
senior executive. However, it is when the organization
is in transition that leaders themselves often need
help. They are so close to the changes that have been
launched that they may fail to
- Remember that they themselves
took some time to come to terms with the necessary
change -- and that their followers will need at
least as long to do so (see figure)
- Understand why anyone would
not embrace change, and, so believe that their
followers are ignorant, rigid, or outright hostile
to the new direction
- See that it is the transitions,
not necessarily the changes themselves, that are
holding people back and thereby threatening to make
their change unworkable.
THE MARATHON EFFECT
The higher a leader sits in an organization
the more quickly he or she tends to move
through the change process. Because they can
see the intended destination before others
even know the race has begun, senior
managers can forget that others will take
longer to make the transition: letting go of
old ways, moving through the neutral zone,
and, finally, making a new beginning.
Most leaders come from backgrounds
where technical, financial, or operational skills were
paramount, and those skills provide little help when it
comes to leading people through transition. Such leaders
may be pushing the limits of their understanding of the
future, and they need perspective and advice. That is
where a trusted colleague, confidant, coach, or
consultant can offer valuable counsel to the leader.
This person's background or professional affiliation can
vary widely; what matters is that she or he understands
how to help people through transition. It is a role that
is far more interpersonal and collaborative than is
played by most consultants or trainers accustomed to
teaching a skill or prescribing a solution.
No training program can prepare a leader
for managing a transition. Yet no leader can effectively
lead change -- which is what leadership is all about --
without understanding and, ultimately, experiencing --
the transition process. What leaders need, instead, is
individualized assistance whereby they learn to
- Create plans to bring their
followers through the particular transition that
they face -- not through generic "change." A trainer
can teach leaders a generalized approach ("The Ten
Steps..."), but a good coach can help the leaders to
discover their own best approaches.
- Work with their own goals,
limitations, and concerns to create a development
plan that prepares them for the future.
|Few leaders know how to
prepare for the challenges that lie ahead.
Times of transition are becoming the
rule rather than the exception. Yet few leaders know how
to prepare for the changes that lie ahead. Transition
leadership skills must be congruent with, must
capitalize and build on, the leader's own strengths and
talents. They cannot be found in a set of theoretical
The transition adviser works
collaboratively with each leader to assess the leader's
place in the three-part transition process, the
strengths the leader brings and how to leverage them,
and what the current situation demands. It is a personal
and completely customized process.
A Method to
the details of a transition management plan are unique
to each situation, the adviser must help a leader with
the following essential steps:
- Learn to describe the change and
why it must happen, and do so succinctly -- in one
minute or less. It is amazing how many leaders
cannot do that.
- Be sure that the details of the
change are planned carefully and that someone is
responsible for each detail; that timelines for all
the changes are established; and that a
communications plan explaining the change is in
- Understand (with the assistance
of others closer to the change) just who is going to
have to let go of what -- what is ending (and what
is not) in people's work lives and careers -- and
what people (including the leader) should let go of.
- Make sure that steps are taken to
help people respectfully let go of the past. These
may include "boundary" actions (events that
demonstrate that change has come), a constant stream
of information, and understanding and acceptance of
the symptoms of grieving, as well as efforts to
protect people's interests while they are giving up
the status quo.
- Help people through the neutral
zone with communication (rather than simple
information) that emphasizes connections with and
concern for the followers,. To keep reiterating the
"4 P's" of transition communications:
The purpose: Why we have to
The picture: What it will
look and feel like when we reach our goal
The plan: Step-by-step, how
we will get there
The part: What you can (and
need to) do to help us move forward.
- Create temporary solutions to the
temporary problems and the high levels of
uncertainty found in the neutral zone. For example,
one high-tech manufacturer, when announcing the
closing of a plant, made interim changes in its
usual reassignment procedures, bonus compensation
plans, and employee communications processes to make
sure that displaced employees suffered as little as
possible, both financially and psychologically. Such
efforts should include transition monitoring teams
that can alert the leader to unforeseen problems --
and disband when the process is done.
- Help people launch the new
beginning by articulating the new attitudes and
behaviors needed to make the change work -- and then
modeling, providing practice in, and rewarding those
behaviors and attitudes. For example, rather than
announcing the grandiose goal of building a
"world-class workforce," leaders of transition must
define the skills and attitudes that such a
workforce must have, and provide the necessary
training and resources to develop them.
the ability to manage transition is tied to the
realities of an actual leader in an actual situation,
mutual trust between adviser and leader is essential.
Only that way can leaders be honest enough to bring
their fears and concerns to the surface quickly, hear
what the situation is really "saying" rather than
focusing on a program that a consultant is trying to
sell, and gain the personal insight and awareness of the
transition process that can be carried into the future.
Because this transition management
relationship is a close and ongoing one, the adviser
gets to know the leader's situation well and follows it
as it changes. Understanding the dynamics of transition
is far removed from the kind of leadership training most
organizations provide. Traditional trainers and
consultants seldom possess such intimate knowledge of
their client. Whatever personal coaching they provide is
usually subsumed to the teaching of a generic skill or
body of knowledge. And because the relationship is
time-limited, there is a natural pressure to produce
quick, clear results.
However, because transition advisers work
within the context of the situation at hand, their focus
is not on how to "be a leader" or even how to "change an
organization" but on how to provide the particular kind
of leadership that an organization in transition
demands. For that reason, the results of the
relationship are very specific: the development of new
skills and behaviors geared to the needs of the unique
time and circumstances in which the person leads.
New Models of
|Without successfully managing
a difficult transition, no leader can be
effective for very long.
you understand transition, you begin to see it
everywhere. You realize that many of the issues commonly
addressed as leadership, learning, or organizational
development challenges are really an inevitable part of
transition. Indeed, in today's organizations, without
experiencing and successfully managing a difficult
transition, no leader can be effective for very long.
That suggests reinventing most models of leadership
development. The best leadership development programs
implicitly address the challenge of understanding change
-- they are experiential, tailored to the needs of the
leader, and based on delivering real-world results. But
most could be strengthened by explicit attention to
The final lesson that the process of
transition holds for leadership development is that the
relationship between adviser and leader is not much
different from that between a leader and the people that
she or he "leads." We treat that word ironically because
the leadership that is appropriate to a modern,
fast-moving organization -- where work is based on task
and mission rather than job description, and is
distributed among contributors inside and outside one's
organization -- takes on a new meaning. It is not the
appropriate to yesterday's organization; rather it is
the give-and-take, person-centered leadership by which
the sports coach gets the best effort out of each member
of a team.
The kind of leadership most effective
today is similar to the kind of service that the best
consultant gives a client: collaborative assistance that
is both problem-solving and developmental. Its target is
both the situation and the professional capability of
the person. Today's leader, in a fundamental sense is a
coach, and the leader can best learn that role by being
|Lessons from the
great leader like Moses faced a trying test of
his leadership in the neutral zone. But he was
up to the task, so take note of some of his
Magnify the plagues
To make the old system (i.e., Pharaoh) "let go"
of his people, Moses called down plagues -- and
didn't stop until the old system gave way. At
this stage, problems are your friend. Don't
solve them, for they convince people that they
need to let go of the old way.
Mark the ending
What a symbolic "boundary event" Moses had!
After his people crossed the Red Sea, there was
no turning back!
Deal with the "murmuring"
Don't be surprised when people lose confidence
in your leadership in the neutral zone: Where
are we going? Does he know the way? What was
ever wrong with Egypt, anyway? In periods of
transition, look for opportunities to have
contact with the individuals in transition;
distance will be interpreted as abandonment. And
show your concern for them by engaging them in
conversation about the issues that are most on
their minds; you may think there are more
important things to talk about, but they
don't think so.
Give people access to the
Moses (aided by his OD specialist, Jethro)
appointed a new cadre of judges in the
wilderness to narrow the gap between the people
and the decision makers.
Capitalize on the creative
opportunity provided by the neutral zone
It was in the wilderness, not in the Promised
Land, that the big innovation took place: the
Ten Commandments were handed down. It'll be in
the neutral zone that many of your biggest
Resist the urge to rush
It seems as though little is happening in the
neutral zone, but this is where the
transformation is taking place. Don't jeopardize
it by hurrying.
neutral-zone leadership is special
Moses did not enter the Promised Land. His kind
of leadership fit the neutral zone, where things
are confusing and fluid. But it was Joshua who
could lead in the more settled state of the
Promised Lane. A literal new leader isn't
needed, though, just a new style of leadership.
Establishment of a new beginning requires a much
more logical approach with an appeal to the
followers' understanding, while the fluidity and
ambiguity of the neutral zone makes an emotional
connection between the leader and the followers
|Copyright © 2000 by
William Bridges and Susan Mitchell Bridges.
Bridges, William, and Susan Mitchell Bridges
"Leading Transition: A New Model for Change"
Leader to Leader. 16 (Spring 2000): 30-36.
Leader to Leader, a publication of the
Leader to Leader Institute and Jossey-Bass.
This article is available
on the Leader to Leader Institute Web site,