Transitioning the winds of change

As a child, I remember the joy I would feel when I would find a fuzzy dandelion ready for me to blow as I made a wish.  My front lawn was often full of these lovely little balls of fluff.  I would sit there for hours blowing one after the other as my aim was to blow every seed off.

Well, it wasn’t until just recently that I found out that the dandelion first starts off as a yellow flower (or weed, to some). This flower will then die and dry up, leaving the beautiful white cotton-ball I am so delighted to find.  Not only that, each time I blow the fuzzy head, it actually blows hundreds of seed into the breeze, only to fall on the ground and grow into more dandelions.  Most gardeners would be horrified, but it made me think about how we can be like the dandelion.  We all go through seasons of growth, change, drying up and renewal.  The dozens of seeds released by each flower illustrate letting go and starting something new.

Bridges’ Transition Model

Most of us can relate to these seasons, and I’m sure a lot of you would say you don’t really like going through them, or you know someone who struggles with change.  Whether it be personally or in your work life, change is inevitable.  Change can often lead to resistance and opposition.  That’s why understanding how people feel during change is a key essential to leading a successful change initiative.

Years of research around change programs’ success and failures reveal that most change programs fail.  William Bridges, the author of ‘Managing Transitions: Making The Most of Change’, claims the change itself is not the issue, but the transitions people go through during the change.  The change is situational and transition is the psychological process.  You could say that change is external and transition is internal.  Getting people through the transition is essential for a successful change program.

Bridges developed a model, Bridges’ Transition Model, which highlights the three stages of transition that people go through when they experience change.

article - winds of change - bridges transition model

(Bridges, W. Managing Transitions, 2003)

Stage 1 – Ending, Losing, Letting Go

When people are first presented with the change, they enter this initial stage of transition.  This stage deals with resistance and emotional turmoil.  Usually, because letting go of the old is not something we like to do easily.  Some common emotions in this stage are fear, anger, denial, sadness, frustration, and uncertainty.  If you, as a leader of change, don’t acknowledge the emotions that people are going through, you will surely encounter resistance and risk the failure that is so common.

Stage 2 – The Neutral Zone

This stage is considered the ‘no-man’s land’ between the old and the new.  The bridge where the old way of doing things is behind you, but you haven’t quite reached the other side to the new way of doing things.  People in this stage might feel resentment, have low morale or low productivity, are anxious about their role, or are skeptical about the change.  Ideally, try to avoid allowing people to stay in this zone for an extended period of time.  Your guidance as a leader through this stage is important.  By providing your people with a solid sense of direction, you can get them to the other side of that bridge quickly.

Stage 3 – The New Beginning

Here you will see the people who have come through the wilderness of the Neutral Zone, and have embraced the change initiative.  They will have an openness to learning and a renewed commitment to the group and their role.  As people begin to adopt the change, you need to be sure it is sustained to avoid them slipping back into the Neutral Zone or – even worse – the Letting Go stage.

People go through these stages at different speeds, and the time spent in each phase varies, but sadly some people never get past stage one – Letting Go.  Most organisations focus mostly on the New Beginnings stage and neglect to address the Letting Go phase.  As a person leading change, in order to make change happen you need to get a critical mass of people unafraid to let go.  This may mean tactics are used to help people let go.

This takes me back to my initial description of the dandelion.  You see, the true beauty of the dandelion is in the way that it propagates.  Every time an excited five year old (or an – ahem– thirty something grown woman) blows on one of these fuzzy balls, we are planting hundreds of new seeds.  From something dead comes new life.