Making the Most of Change

Men believe that a society is disintegrating when it can no longer be pictured in familiar terms. Unhappy is a people that has run out of words to describe what is going on – Thurman Arnold

According to William Bridges in Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, it isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.

Here’s an example. Varity Corporation, the Canadian agricultural equipment company that used to be called Massey-Fergusson, decided to change the information management system in its tractor division. Aaron Jones, director of finance and administration, noted that in the past they had always “retrieved information by country and not be how products were used, such as for narrow- or wide-row farming, vineyards, or orchards.” So they changed. What happened? Jones discovered that the French employees had real affection for the French company, British employees for the U.K. company, and Italian employees for the Italian company. A lot of people saw their loyalty and interest connected much more closely to what happened to each of these companies than to the tractor division overall.(1) And so a useful change was undermined by the transitions that it caused in the employees who had to make it work.

Unless transition occurs, change will not work. That’s what happens when a great idea falls flat. Not long ago a large insurance company ran a huge program in which 485 teams were set up to generate cost-saving ideas. The director of the effort later reported, with no apparent awareness of the irony of what he was saying, that “the most creative idea submitted to date and which supports the best intentions of the program, has potential annualized savings of $40,000. If paper inserted into a Fax machine is inserted sideways it will cut transmission time 15%.” He said, however, “that it will be hard to implement because it means changing behavior.”(2)

At least he recognized that people have to reorient themselves psychologically if the situational difference is going to work. The old French saying puts the matter a little less positively: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Translating that into the terms we are using, it means, “There can be any number of changes, but unless there are transitions, nothing will be different when the dust clears.”

Several of the important differences between change and transition are overlooked when people think of transition as simply gradual or unfinished change. When we talk about change, we naturally focus on the outcome that the change will produce. If you move from Melbourne to New York City, USA, the change is moving countries and learning your way around the Big Apple. The same is true of your organization’s change to a service culture or to a flatter organizational structure or to using electronic mail to communicate internally. In each case, the new arrangements must be understood if we are to be ready for the change.

Transition is different. The starting point for transition is not the outcome but the ending that you will have to make to leave the old situation behind. Situational change hinges on the new thing, but psychological transition depends on letting go of the old reality and the old identify you had before the change took place. Nothing so undermines organizational change as the failure to think through who will have to let go of what when change occurs.

Transitions starts with ending — paradoxical but true. Test this fact in your own experience. Think of a big change in your life: your first managerial job, or the birth of your first child, or the move to a new house. Good changes, all of them, but as transitions, each one started with an ending.


With the job, you may have had to let go of your old peer group. They weren’t peers anymore, and the kind of work you really liked may have come to an end. Perhaps you had to give up the feeling of competence that came from doing that work, and your habit of leaving your work at the office may have stopped when you took on the round-the-clock responsibility of a managerial job.

With the baby, you probably had to let go of regular sleep, extra money, time alone with your spouse, and the spontaneity of going somewhere when the two of you felt like it. Where, too, your sense of competence may have come to an end as you found yourself unable to get the baby to eat or sleep or stop crying.

With the move, a whole network of relationships ended. Even if you kept in touch, it was never the same again. You used to know where to go for what: stores, the doctor, the dentist, and the neighbor who’d keep an eye on the house when you were gone. You have to let go of a feeling at home for a while.

Even in these “good” change, there are transitions that begin with having to let go of something. There are endings. There are losses. I’m not trying to be discouraging—just realistic. The failure to identify and be ready for the endings and losses that change produces is the largest single problem that organizations in transition encounter.

The organization institutes a quality improvement program, and no one foresees how many people will experience the “improvement” as a loss of something related to their job. The organization builds a beautiful new headquarters building, and no one foresees how many people experience the relocation as a loss.

Once you understand that transition begins with letting go of something, you have taken the first step in the task of transition management. The second step is understanding what comes after the letting go: the neutral zone. This is the no-man’s-land between the old reality and the new. It’s the limbo between the old sense of identify and the new. It is a time when the old way is gone and the new doesn’t feel comfortable yet.

When you moved to your new house, or got the promotion, or had the baby, the change probably happened pretty fast. But that is just the external situational change. Inwardly the psychological transition happened much more slowly, because instead of becoming a new person as fast as you changed outwardly, you actually struggled 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 clear who you were or what was real.

It’s important to understand this neutral zone for several reasons. First, if you don’t expect it and understand why it is there, you’re likely to try to rush through it and to be discouraged when you cannot do so. You may mistakenly conclude that the confusion you feel is a sign that there’s something wrong with you.

Second, you may be frightened in this no-man’s-land and try to escape. (Employees do this frequently, which is why there is an increased level of turnover during major organizational changes). To abandon the situation, however, is to abort the transition, both personally and organizationally—and to jeopardize the change.

Third, if you escape prematurely from the neutral zone, you’ll not only compromise the change but also lose a great opportunity. Painful though it often is, the neutral zone is the individual’s and the organization’s best change for creativity, renewal, and development. The positive aspect of the neutral zone will be discussed further in a later chapter, but here let me note simply that this gap between the old and the new is the time when innovation is most possible and when revitalization begins.

The neutral zone is thus both a dangerous and an opportune place, and it is the very core of the transition process. It’s the place and time when the old habits that are no longer adaptive to the situation are extinguished and new, better-adapted patterns of habit begin to take shape. It is the winter in which the old growth returns to the soil as decayed matter, while the next year’s growth begins to stir in the root underground. It is the night during which we are disengaged from yesterday’s concerns and prepared for tomorrow’s. It is the chaos in which the old form of things dissolves and from which the new form emerges. It is the seedbed of the new beginning that you seek.

Ending—neutral zone—new beginning. People make the new beginning only if they have first made an ending and spent some time in the neutral zone. Yet most organizations try to start with the beginning rather than finishing with it. They pay no attention to endings. They do not acknowledge the existence of the neutral zone, then wonder why people have so much difficult with change.

When I say that “organizations” do these things, I mean, of course, that people do. Only people like you can develop the new attitude toward change by recognizing that it is dependent on transition. Only people like you can learn to manage transitions so the changes do not become unmanageable. Only people like you can implement change in such a way that it does not end up hurting the organization more than helping it.

Gwyder – Executive Coaching

To find out more about Gwyder’s Assessment and Coaching services, speak to Kerry Little, Principal Executive Coach. You can find out more about Kerry’s background here.


Bridges, William.  “Managing Transitions:  Making the Most of Change”, Addison-Wesley.  1991.