It’s a cliché that the one constant in life is change. But most of us can see some truth in that – especially this year. So it was great to talk to Susan Bridges, president of William Bridges Associates and an expert in “transitions” – her term for the internal process that accompanies all change.
Her late husband, Bill Bridges, PhD, wrote a bestselling book on this topic, titled “Transitions,” which Susan Bridges has reissued to mark its 40th anniversary. She’s also reissued “Managing Transitions,” Bill’s follow-up aimed at organizational change.
The Three Phases of Transition to Achieve Change
The Bridges transitions model has three phases: the ending of the old situation; the neutral zone, when we’re unsure of what’s to come; and the new beginning, which sees the change fully implemented.
So often, we leap straight to phase three, the new beginning. It’s positive and forward-looking and feels like a natural starting point. But we miss out the first two steps at our peril, Bridges says.
According to the Bridges model, we can’t move on until we’ve faced what we’ve lost.
“Endings are very hard for people to understand and leaders want to start with the beginnings: ‘Here’s what we’re going to do now,'” Bridges says. “Endings is where you have to start when there’s a change. Whatever I knew to be true is now over, it’s gone. It’s not there anymore. What do I take from that? What do I learn? How do I identify what I’ve lost and what I’ve let go of?”
She shares a vivid story of what this can look like in an organization. One of her clients was going through an acquisition, a time of great uncertainty for the staff. Bridges worked with them to embrace the end of the status quo.
“They started to become really engaged in the endings,” she recalls. “They had two big buildings that were connected with a glass walkway, and people had to walk through that glass walkway every day because they needed to be in both buildings.
“What they did was they set up what they called a ‘Hall of Fame,’ and they brought out everything – they brought out all of the photos, everything that they had developed, T-shirts, mugs, awards, that kind of thing – and they just told the story of the company.”
Day after day, people lingered on the walkway, looking at this exhibit and thinking about what they were leaving behind. Eventually, when it was time to move on, they put the most treasured items into a company archive and gave everything else to charity.
“They had a celebration of who they were and who they had been and how to cherish that. It was very positive,” Bridges says.
The second phase, the neutral zone, is often uncomfortable, but it can’t be rushed. Everyone responds differently as they work out what the future might look like, and this needs to play out in its own time.
To help ease anxieties during organizational change, Bridges advises us to create temporary structures and teams. This provides short-term certainty, and can be fruitful, too.
“During that time there’s an opportunity to start to explore different ways of working, different ways of approaching a project, different ways of addressing an issue,” she says. “And if it’s presented in a manner where people feel that it’s safe to brainstorm ideas, whether they’re good or not, knowing that, sifting through, some pretty good possibilities may come, that’s what this time is about.”
Good communication is key to getting this right, and it’s fundamental to the final phase of transition as well.
“As you move into the new beginning, don’t stop what you’re doing. Keep communicating, keep dynamic, keep talking about what’s happening,” Bridges says. “It’s a new way of living and it needs to be reinforced and it needs to be kept alive for people.”
COVID-19 has generated a lot of change this year. And at the same time – thanks to widespread restrictions on office working – it has made transitions more difficult. When teams shared the same workspace, casual conversations helped bring people together and spread resilience.
We need to find new ways to do that, Bridges believes, to survive and thrive.
“I think that finding new ways to stay in touch with people as they work virtually is going to be important, because [managers] may not see the visible effects of what people are experiencing in transition,” she says. “They want to, again, overcommunicate, and just be as honest as they can about what’s happening – even the things they’re not sure about. That builds trust.”
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