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How to manage change during transition period

I have written about change quite often in this column, and a few weeks ago I referred briefly to my own change anxiety in the context of my stay in hospital while dealing with Covid.

There, during my two-month incarceration, I was moved several times: from this ward to that ward, and then first to one room and later another prior to my eventual release. Each transition provoked its own anxieties, however ill-founded some were.

I was reminded of my transition stress as I came across the book Managing Transitions – Making the Most of Change by William Bridges, a prominent consultant who pointed out that much of what gets us agitated is not the actual difference between the old and the new situations but the disruptive transition from one to the other.

Each time I dreaded the prospects of being wheelchaired to my new abode, someone trailing behind me with the oxygen cylinder to which I was hooked up, and someone packing my belongings and then unpacking them in an unfamiliar setting – on one occasion at high speed and late in the evening.

All this required great mental and emotional strength on my part to keep adequately calm and optimistic about both the journey and the destination.

One transition led me to a distinctly less conducive environment, justifying my prior concern; while the upgrade to my first private room delivered significant advantages, as did the freedom from isolation – allowing me to receive visitors. But even this did not take away from the discomforts of transition.

My exit from the confines of the hospital to a care home and then finally back to my own home exposed me to yet more transition experiences, yet more reasons to be anxious about moves from one environment to the next, where at each stage the availability of carers would be diminished.

The good news is that all this made me a transition expert in just three months!

Bridges describes the sequence of progressing from the first stage of “ending” the previous setting, when we feel a sense of loss, accompanied by first denial, then anger and frustration, as we come to terms with the need to let go of the familiar; to the “neutral” stage, where negative feelings diminish; to the “new beginning”, with its mix of gains and fresh challenges.

It’s good to seek support when facing change, advises Bridges, and indeed from my experience I saw that support should be offered pro-actively and pre-emptively – having understood where and why people are anxious. How was it for this hospital nomad?

Sometimes I was reassured and comforted by the doctors and nurses, but on one occasion I actually felt like an Internally Displaced Person. Important too is to be straightforward with ourselves about where the new situation will indeed leave us less well off, helping us to accept the inevitable gracefully, as it’s as good as it gets.

Managing expectations is the name of this game.

The neutral zone is the most challenging, I read, because we can’t go back to the old state and we haven’t yet mastered the new one. Other messages from Bridges are that it is easier to let go of the past if we take lessons from what is ending and what we must let go of.

And that if possible we should try and take some familiar aspects into and beyond the transition.

More so in this volatile day and age we are constantly challenged to transition beyond our comfort zones: a new boss or structure or job; a new phone or laptop, or a new version of an operating system or App or ERP, and so many other changes… not to mention Covid, which has multiplied the ways in which we have had to adapt – to remote working, to not shaking hands and in many other ways.

Some of us find it all so hard to handle, while others manufacture the strength to expand their comfort zones as they travel through their transitions and into their new scenarios.

If those new scenarios leave us worse off, make us feel like an IDP, then we must find yet more strengths – beyond those required for the journey through transition – so we can plan for our best possible future with an invigorated sense of purpose.

Embracing change is a choice we can make

My favourite line from President-Elect Joe Biden’s November 7 acceptance speech following the American election is this one, on the refusal over the last few years of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another: “It’s not some mysterious force beyond our control,” he declared, “It’s a decision, a choice. So if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate.”

I relate so well to this, as in my consulting work I share just such sentiments with some of the clients I support as they embark on change management initiatives designed to bring their people together by promoting higher trust and collaboration among them, between levels and between departments.

The conventional wisdom is that undergoing change is a long hard journey filled with disappointing setbacks, where few actually reach their desired destination. It’s like pushing a big rock up a steep hill, the strugglers sigh, knowing that if ever they lose their grip the rock will slide back and crush them… the most likely outcome.

I am among those who quote Prof John Kotter’s research, which showed that 70 percent of change initiatives fail. Not surprisingly, such statistics discourage organisations from even having a go. “Why waste our time and money, when things are as they are and cannot be changed?” they ask.

And yet. And yet. What about the 30 per cent of change initiatives that do succeed? What do they have in common? Kotter guided us with his renowned 8 Steps to Change, about which I wrote a column a few years ago, and through my experience with many organisations I too have learned much about common success factors.

Guess what? Everything is to do with leadership. And needless to say, starting with the top leadership: the board, the CEO, the senior management team. So the first question to ask is where are they? Are they part of the solution or part of the problem? And if the former, how strategic and ongoing, how authentic and influential, is the role they are prepared to play?

Will they merely have their HR person put some event together, show up at the opening and then let their people get on with it – with some unfortunate facilitator expected to wave a magic wand that will transform the expectations? Will there be robust follow up, with specific actions, impact indicators and so forth, to ensure the desired changes are taking place? Or does everyone just get back to work and keep on doing what they’ve always done, allowing the memory of the change management commitments to fade away?

Most importantly, how ambitious is the leadership for significant and sustainable change? How confident and bold are the leaders? How skilled in inspiring their teams to assume that change is indeed possible? Key to success is one of Kotter’s eight steps: ensuring there are enough “quick wins”, to stimulate a sense of hope and optimism, and to dilute the natural skepticism, maybe even cynicism.

For in too many cases it will not have been the first attempt at such change management. Previous initiatives had also promised much, and yet failed to deliver. Would this one also fall flat on its face?

I’m with Biden: it’s a decision. It’s a choice. If you don’t actively decide it will succeed this time then it will not. Not succeeding is the most likely outcome. But not the inevitable one. For sure the ones who most need to change may well be the ones least likely to, so again turning to Kotter it is vital to gather a “coalition of the willing”, of bold individuals who while preparing for the worst will hope for the best and show the way to other more timid and unconvinced folk.

Among role models, positive behaviour sometimes has to be one step ahead of natural feelings of doubt, hoping that subsequently such behaviour will in turn influence feelings for the better. These stronger characters are the ones to lead change, the ones to make all that pushing of stones up hills worthwhile, the ones who won’t worry about mysterious forces beyond their control preventing them from succeeding.