GUIDING PEOPLE THROUGH CHANGE
When I guide change initiatives, I find William Bridges’ (2009) distinction between change and transitions to be incredibly helpful. Bridges says that change is an event. Transitions are the psychological and emotional adaptations people make as they “live into” that event. In a merger, for instance, the change is the merger. Transitions are what people in both companies go through as they shift reporting relationships, work processes, organizational culture, etc.
Adams’ (2003) research on successful transitions showed that leaders’ consistent, unambiguous commitment to guiding transitions is a key factor in the success of change. Without leaders who guide, people wander, productivity suffers, and the “noise” of people’s disorientation roars like fire through the organization.
A leader’s first step is to think carefully about what your vision is for positive outcomes of the change. How will your speak about this vision in a compelling way?
A practical way to integrate change and transitions is to create a “guiding coalition” (Kotter, 1996). Because this coalition plans both the change event and people’s adjustment, choose guiding coalition members with a variety of talents. For example, trained and experienced project managers are superb at planning change, but I have worked with many who know nothing about processes that help people through transition. One well-rounded guiding coalition I am currently working with includes a project manager with his ear to the ground, senior managers with savvy and access, and an HR specialist.
The guiding coalition needs to consider three stages of transition: endings, the in-between zone, and new beginnings. People in endings are variously saying good-bye to and grieving the loss of old ways. In the in-between zone, people are variously struggling to cope and creatively experimenting with new ways of working. The new-beginnings stage involves assimilating new ways of working.
While there are many specific ways to guide people through these three stages, the fundamental requirement is to communicate intentionally, carefully, and often. In a complex transition project I am managing right now, a frequently updated intranet site offers background and current information about the change. The top leader writes weekly emails to all staff. A broadly composed group of stakeholders convenes weekly to help guide the change, and, as one vehicle for two-way communication, they collect people’s questions and post them, along with answers, on the intranet site.
John Kotter’s famous research (1995) found that one of eight reasons for failed change is under-communicating, that is, when leader messages and optimism are hard to see and hear.