March 16, 2017
(+++) MOVING ON
Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, 4th Edition. By William Bridges, Ph.D., with Susan Bridges. Da Capo. $16.99.
Although published by Da Capo in a division called “Lifelong Books,” the new edition of Managing Transitions is actually an example of a beyond-lifelong book: William Bridges died in 2013, and this iteration of a book that originally dates to 1991 was prepared by his widow and consulting-business colleague. Although somewhat adapted for the increasingly frenetic pace of the Information Age and the companies striving to succeed and grow in it, the book retains the essential insights of earlier editions and shares their significant pluses and somewhat less prominent weaknesses.
The book’s title and subtitle are a trifle misleading, implying a certain equivalence between transition and change, when in fact Bridges’ basic argument is that the words refer to very different matters: “change” is situational and essentially external, while transition is a psychological “three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.” Thus, change is comparatively fast and reasonably easy to pinpoint; transition is slow, individualized, and takes place over time, often considerable time.
Managing Transitions is specifically about workplace change, although elements of the book could be applied to personal circumstances as well – even more so now that so many people carry their work with them, figuratively and sometimes literally, wherever they go and at all times. The three basic elements of transition that Bridges identifies are ending/losing/letting go, “the Neutral Zone,” and a new beginning. The first of these requires separation from old ways of thinking or behaving to which people have become attached – the parallel between business processes and psychological counseling is especially clear here – with the result that staff members can become scared, depressed, anxious, confused and otherwise unable to handle the necessary movement to whatever new circumstances have arisen. One of Bridges’ best insights has to do with the importance of respecting this phase by creating a clear demarcation between then and now – and treating the past with respect rather than dismissiveness, thus helping make up for the sense of loss that people are sure to feel when the way things used to be (which worked very well for some time for them and the company) is no longer satisfactory (which is not the same as no longer being valued).
Getting this first phase right is crucial to moving into the rather inelegantly named “Neutral Zone” (something along the lines of “Transition Zone” would have been better and clearer). Here, risk and opportunity are in balance as people vacillate between the old that is gone and the new that has not yet fully taken hold. This is the time for exploring alternative ways of doing things so that the new beginning – in which employees take on new, more-suitable-for-the-future identities and behaviors – can form and solidify. Interestingly, Bridges makes a distinction between “start” and “beginning,” arguing that starts are scheduled and result from decisions, while beginnings occur gradually and on a schedule determined by psychological adaptation rather than fixed timetables.
Bridges’ emphasis on the human side of change is what still makes Managing Transitions a strong book, and the specific tools, lists and recommendations here remain highly useful and reasonably easy for companies to implement. However, the way Bridges parses his important distinctions between “change” and “transition,” and between “start” and “beginning,” is less than fully clear and smacks somewhat of semantic nitpicking. He is also somewhat unclear about how the three transition phases work, at one point saying they must occur in order and at another point saying they can all take place in overlapping fashion, essentially at the same time. Also, the emphasis here on individual psychological transitions, a significant strength in some ways, becomes a weakness to the extent that Managing Transitions does not effectively show how major change, especially rapid change, has huge effects beyond the individual – that is, effects on employees’ collective identity and on a company’s shared values and behaviors. The imbalance between the individualized emphasis of this book and the collective emphasis of many others is salutary to the extent that other change-management books tend to overlook individual psychological impact unless it looms so large as to disrupt the whole working environment. However, companies are ultimately collections of individuals functioning in ways that are greater (one hopes) than the sum of the individual parts. Bridges’ redressing of the balance between individual and company-wide effects of change and transition is a very good thing, but his comparative neglect of the real-world nature of companies as collective entities makes Managing Transitions less readily applicable to the often-frenetic pace of workday circumstances than it might have been, whether in its original incarnation or in its latest update.