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Managing Transitions: The Human Side of Transformations

Updated: Aug 8, 2022

Organisational, career and personal transformations are the norm in today's fast-changing world and taking place at an unprecedented pace. The world as a whole is undergoing reinvention, one that is reflected in organisational and individual transitions and one that will shape the future considerably. The ones that don't transform and move to a designed future aligned with the new world will soon be outdated and forced to fill even more significant gaps later on.

Are you a leader in charge of a merger, the transition to hybrid working or a pivotal change in the business strategy? Or maybe you work in HR, an area where new roles will be created in the global workforce, and you want to course correct so that you remain competitive and relevant? Do you want to shape your life differently, maybe have more time for your family and kids and approach work with the new goals in mind? Or perhaps you want to be ready for the following significant change impacting your life. Then, this article is for you - because, in all the mentioned scenarios, you will have to manage a transition, either for you or for your teams.

Sharing a lifelong learning interest in change, being involved in global organisational transformations and having gone through a significant life and career transition, here is a transition management map for way-finding through the chaos of a transition. Guiding questions will enable reflection and inform your thinking and practical process of navigating each transition stage.

First, let's clarify the terms. There is a difference between change and transitions. Change is situational, like the global pandemic outbreak, a merger bringing two companies together, and organisational restructuring or a mid-life career change. Transition is the psychological process we go through to make sense of the change and come to terms with the transformed environment. Transitions are not optional - they occur even when we try to ignore or separate from the change. And by overlooking the transition process, the chances of promising outcomes at the end of the transformation are highly reduced.

Major transitions shift our identities and how we see ourselves in the world, making the change irreversible—the more significant the identity shift, the more impactful the transition. When multiple change events are combined, like a company-related transformation that brings a new senior job combined with a life change of having a newborn child, the shift can be even more profound.

Examples of changes leading to transitions:

  • Global: Lockdowns imposed during COVID-19, global travel restrictions, moving to a working-from-home model, new jobs emerging in the global workplace and other jobs becoming redundant;

  • Organisational: Redesigning the workplace to a hybrid model, a merger bringing two companies, cultures and ways of working together, a new operating model, a new CEO and leadership team with a new strategy and approach;

  • Individual: A mid-life career change, moving to a different country, retirement, stepping up to an executive position

Managing the change does not mean managing the transition. Because ultimately, all transitions impact people and trigger a psychological change that can't be underestimated. Guidance through the process stages and knowing what to expect can make it easier to move through the different stages with greater awareness, acceptance and enthusiasm. All three phases are required for a transition to work, and they don't run in parallel; they overlap. Transitions begin with an end and finish with a new beginning.

Stage #1 - Endings: The ending of a chapter is as important as the new beginning. This is the moment of letting go of the old ways and old identities, coming with grief, loss and resistance. No surprise that we don't like endings. In observing transformations, this is the most ignored step, especially when a positive change is happening. We assume that just because the change is positive, the associated emotions will be all positive and fast-tracking the results. Without the acknowledgement and the empathy for such an end, going through the transition will feel even more confusing, and the probability of returning to this point later is high.

Reflective questions:

  • What is ending now that should be acknowledged and called out explicitly?

  • Who is impacted, directly and indirectly, and what type of support do they need?

  • What problem is the reason for the change? Do people see the problem and its impact directly?

  • What former identity is no longer representative?

  • How can we celebrate what is ending now, allowing the new to surface?

"All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy for what we leave behind is part of ourselves, we must die to one life before we enter into another" - Anatole France

Stage #2 - The middle: The messy middle is when the old way of doing things is no longer working, but the new way has not emerged. Depending on the change, this stage can take months or years. Most times, its duration is significantly underestimated.

High achievers and outcome-focused leaders have difficulty managing this stage because it feels like a long journey into the wilderness and a waste of time, so we try to bypass it. As a result, people's anxiety rises, and motivation falls. Old weaknesses become more evident than ever. Polarisation increases as there is a constant battle between rushing forward and returning to the old ways. We can't see ourselves clearly, because we are way too used to measuring ourselves through the lenses of the former environment.

But this is also the stage that can bring the most significant learnings and opportunities, allowing new leaders and ideas to step up, thus fostering creativity and innovation. Real resilience, wisdom and self-reliance are all capabilities built during this phase. Without these, we can't build new beginnings. Many systems and beliefs will break now, allowing new ones to form in alignment with the new goals. Actual change can only occur once old patterns are broken, so this stage will last until the unsustainable ways die. We build in this phase the Level 0 of the new organisation, new career or new life.

Reflective questions:

  • While the new way of being is not formed yet, what common principles will we follow during this stage to maintain alignment?

  • What thoughts and beliefs are no longer serving that we could creatively redesign now?

  • How can we observe and celebrate the little wins during this stage?

  • What competencies and capabilities have we formed now?

"Chaos often breeds life, while order breeds habit." - Henry Adams

Stage #3 - Beginnings: Stepping into the new identity and building on the opportunities. A new identity is shaped, new energy surfacing and a new sense of purpose is emerging. Beginnings can be exciting and overwhelming, requiring a high level of commitment and resources to make them a reality. This stage may trigger anxieties that the new direction may not work and surface memories of past failures. The timing of the new beginning is not decided or acted upon but rather determined by the progress in the transition process.

As a leader, the most powerful way to influence is by inspiring others through one's example.

Reflective questions:

  • What is the new purpose, and what does the picture of the future look like?

  • What resources, competencies, and plans do we need to build the new?

  • Are the new ways actually new or just old ways in a different form?

  • How can we celebrate, integrate and mark the new identity?

"Example is not the main thing in influencing others; it's the only thing." - Albert Schweitzer

Managing transitions in global organisations is one of the most complex journeys an organisation can go through and one of a leader's hardest missions. Unfortunately, 70% of such transformations fail to achieve the outcome, even when the investment in the new direction is a major one. One of the root causes is people or customers not coming on board with the new direction.

Similarly, managing a career and life transition comes first with a tough reality check followed by massive responsibility to pursue the new vision. It's a path that we often walk alone until we find a new tribe to be part of. It's the most challenging and personal project we may ever manage. There will be many trials and errors.

The good news is that the human capacity to adapt to change and access inner resources is unlimited. With a designed process and the right partners in transformation, we can achieve much more than we initially anticipated. Besides the targeted outcomes, we will rediscover parts of the organisation and ourselves that we have never seen before. We will be pleasantly surprised by the level of change that we can navigate even without direct control. We will find new tribes and possibilities that were waiting to be observed.

Change, together with human beings, leads to transition. And successful transitions lead to shaping the future world, organisations and ourselves. So the effort we put into managing the human side of the organisational transformations can bridge the future we desire to create.


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