In the dynamic landscape of change management, the “neutral zone” emerges as a pivotal concept in William Bridges’ groundbreaking work. Delve into this transformative journey, as we unveil the strategic insights behind managing transitions with finesse and resilience.
Ready to unlock the secrets of seamless transitions? Read on to discover the essential elements that make or break organizational change.
“Managing Transitions” by William Bridges offers a profound exploration of the neutral zone, that ambiguous space between the old and the new during any organizational shift. Bridges masterfully guides readers through practical strategies to navigate this critical phase, turning uncertainty into opportunities for growth. The book provides a roadmap for leaders and teams to successfully manage change, emphasizing the importance of acknowledging endings, navigating the neutral zone, and embracing new beginnings.
Bridges’ work stands as a beacon for anyone steering through transitions. The focus on the neutral zone is particularly enlightening, offering actionable insights that resonate with real-world challenges. The book’s strength lies in its ability to blend theoretical concepts with practical applications, making it an indispensable resource for leaders seeking to foster resilience and adaptability within their teams. A must-read for those aiming to not just survive, but thrive in times of change.
Table of Contents
Personal Development, Management, Leadership, Career Success, Business, Organizational Development, Change Management, Employee Engagement, Workplace Culture, Professional Growth, Strategic Planning, Self-Help
This is one of the most succinct and clearly written business books you will ever read. Author William Bridges uses language with care and precision, delivering the goods without any superfluous jargon. He cites many welcome quotations on change and innovation from a wide range of writers and thinkers whose work is not usually found in business books. He places these quotations in context with aptly chosen examples of recent business transitions, bringing intelligence and sensibility to a subject too often addressed only with clichés and cant. Only those who have read many business books can fully appreciate the value of such an approach. Others will merely find that they are able to read this book from cover to cover without at any point having to wonder what the author really means to say. Managing transitions is really about helping people deal with fear and uncertainty – the key is to build trust and confidence. Everything Bridges says flows from that common sense insight, and seems obvious and necessary once he says it, though it may not seem as evident to you until you read his book. getAbstract highly recommends that you do so.
- Change and transition are not the same thing. Change means an alteration in circumstances, such as when employees will vacate their desks.
- Transition is the psychological process of accepting and working through change.
- The most important parts of managing transition are almost self evident, yet organizations routinely ignore, forget or neglect them.
- They include consistency, truthfulness, clarity and communication.
- Respect the past but make it clear that the change is going to happen.
- Trust is all-important. Managers should always do what they commit to do. Trust will help employees through the three stages of transition.
- Those stages are: the old way’s end (which comes first), the neutral zone and the new way’s beginning (which comes last).
- A transition begins with the end of an old way and always involves a sense of loss.
- The neutral zone is a period of chaos and confusion.
- Without careful management of the transition, a new beginning will never take place.
Introduction: Uncover the secrets behind successful life changes
Managing Transitions (1991) delves into the critical difference between change and transition, emphasizing that successful change hinges on managing the psychological transitions of those involved. It offers practical strategies for helping people adapt to change, underscoring the importance of understanding and addressing the human side of transition to ensure organizational success.
Are you planning to make a major change in your organization?
Going through change is tough, there’s no doubt about it. When you decide a big shift is necessary to move your team forward, you probably have put in a lot of thought about the practical details. You strategize tools, policies, and role responsibilities that will make up the change.
But there’s something equally important that people don’t always factor in – the human transition that has to take place for new behaviors to stick. Change is a deeply personal journey for every team member. It involves not just altering structures but guiding your team through a psychological shift.
In this summary, we’re going to explore why change can be so difficult, and how you can guide your team through a period of adaptation and new beginnings.
You’ll discover strategies for preparing your team for this transition, handling resistance, and actively involving them in the change process. You’ll also learn about navigating the neutral zone, a critical phase of transition, and how to solidify new beginnings, ensuring your team doesn’t just adapt but thrives.
Ultimately, this guide serves as your map through a change journey that is set for success. Aim for more than just change – aim for real transformation.
The psychology of change
To create meaningful, lasting change, we need to appreciate that change in the workplace happens on two levels – a situational level and a psychological level. And if we don’t address both intentionally, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.
So, what do we mean by that?
Let’s say you realize your organization is suffering from its current structure. You put in the time and research and decide to shift from a traditional hierarchy towards a different system of self-managed teams. On paper, it makes perfect sense. But when you start to implement this change, you run into trouble.
The thing is that managers often struggle to let go of control. Conversely, team members who rely on leadership direction can start to feel uneasy with the autonomy and struggle to make decisions. After a few months of the new system, you realize that the team structure only really exists on paper, and all the problems you were aiming to fix are as bad as ever.
The change itself, moving from a current state into one we envision, is on the situational level. We are moving from situation A to situation B. But the transition between A and B is much more personal – your team needs to psychologically reorient themselves in order to embrace the change on a psychological level. If we overlook that crucial internal adjustment process, our wonderfully strategized plan can fail, no matter how logical it might be.
Preparing your team for transition is as important as planning the change itself. Resistance towards change isn’t just a case of people being difficult – it’s a natural psychological response towards the unknown. More than being tolerated, resistance should be expected and planned for. It’s your job to guide people through that transition. Without framing the change within a transition plan, the engrained habits and culture will undermine even the best of plans, regardless of whether they benefit everyone.
The thing is that people need time to process endings, recalibrate their identities, and try new ways of working. We can’t expect an immediate flip of a switch. Instead, we need to map out the psychological change, to help your team really transform.
Preparing for change
Preparing your people for the personal impact of change is just as important as strategizing the practical elements. This is more than just giving them project plans and timelines. It requires getting your team generally ready, willing, and able to cope with the human side of change.
Take the clothing company Benetton – they decided to diversify their brand by buying up a range of sporting goods companies, including Rollerblade. The idea was that in addition to the gear itself, Benetton would be able to cross-promote sportswear that they produced. They figured that the acquired companies would be delighted to become part of an internationally successful brand.
The problem? They didn’t consider how the change would impact the individual people working at the stores they had acquired. Most people who worked for these individual companies were personally involved in a particular sport or activity and had little interest in a more diverse offering.
Benetton’s efforts to establish a central headquarters in New Jersey didn’t go over well with employees of Rollerblade, whose sport was better suited to its original Minneapolis home base. What’s more is that they now had to report to former Nordica reps, whose skiing background clashed with the culture of Rollerblade. The result? Benetton went from making $5 million in profit to reporting a loss of $31 million within the year.
The lesson here is that before you implement your big new idea, you should start by analyzing exactly how this change will alter attitudes, habits, and ways of working at an individual level. How will roles expand or shift? What new skill sets are needed?
Folks who have something of value they perceive they will lose are going to have the hardest adjustment, grieving aspects of the ending. Listen to their concerns seriously, and with empathy. Take the time to do your research, and talk to people one on one. The only way you can manage the transition is if you understand where you’re starting from.
We also recommend you do some self-reflection. What will this transition require from you as a leader? How can you embody the change you expect from others? How can you involve your team in how this change is done? If you can get your team involved in the planning stages, they will be a lot more personally invested and feel heard. Always keep in mind that managing the human dynamics of change takes dedication, compassion, and understanding.
So, we’ve covered why transition planning is so important. Now let’s talk about the art of getting people to let go.
When shifting the status quo, letting go can be the hardest part. It might even evoke a grieving process. This isn’t just your staff being difficult, or being stubbornly set in their ways. It’s a natural step in coming to terms with the end of a comfortable stability. A lot of people will be anxious about their jobs, or mourn the skills they have developed that allow them to thrive in the current way of being.
You should have already thought about the people who might stand to lose something of genuine value – status, close-knit teams, cherished processes. This might be something as obvious as staff cutbacks but might include less obvious things like lifestyle changes or cultural shifts. One of the reasons Rollerblade staff enjoyed working in Minneapolis was because they could take their lunch breaks to skate through the lakeside parks or play roller hockey outside the headquarters buildings. You might see a better path, but these subjective losses can be deeply important.
Anticipate some initial overreaction or even denial about having to abandon aspects individual team members found meaningful. Like the turbulent stages of grief, people often cycle between anger, clinging to sentimentality about how things have “always been done”, or anxiety about the unknown. Have compassion – transition can feel like losing a piece of personal identity or family.
Importantly, frame the rationale for change around resolving a pressing problem, not just seeking improvement. Let people experience the pain points themselves when possible. For instance, if customers are dissatisfied, have team members listen in on calls to build urgency and align around the need for change.
Keep two-way dialogue flowing through regular team check-ins as you move forward. Encourage mutual understanding of worries, but also hopes. This lets people know that they’re being seen and heard, critical for motivation. And don’t just listen. Involve your team in the change conversation. Generate ideas together to make the transition smooth whilst staying true to the vision.
Transitioning takes patience and care. But by equipping people for their losses, you pave the way for them to ultimately redirect their energies into the next, exciting chapter ahead.
The neutral zone
There’s an uncomfortable place between where you were, and where you want to be. It’s that unsettling gap, the one when old structures have been dissolved, but the new ones aren’t fully defined yet. This is what’s known as the neutral zone.
What makes the neutral zone difficult is the uncertainty that people feel about identity, status, and direction. Everyone is holding their breath, wondering if the rocket ship is going to launch. Will the risk be worth it? It’s a stressful point in time, but if handled right, it can be a pivotal phase.
One huge benefit of this phase is that the fluidity can grant people the freedom to innovate. Encourage people to brainstorm fresh ideas and experiments that align with the vision. This sparks energy and ownership for what’s next.
As the leader, put temporary systems in place so work carries on while final roles and processes get redesigned. For example, set up cross-functional workflow teams based on skillsets rather than old hierarchies. Critical projects can keep developing through collaborative effort.
Strengthen intra-group connections as well, the glue that builds resilience amidst ambiguity. Have people identify “transition buddies” across departments to lend peer support. You can also boost morale with team-building activities – even simple things like monthly potlucks or trivia can be very effective.
Lastly, create a transition monitoring team with representation across levels, tenures, and demographics. Task them with assessing emotional states, gathering input, and addressing concerns. This gives you invaluable data to craft the path forward.
The neutral zone is undoubtedly tricky to navigate. But if you foster creativity, connections, and communication here, you’re likely to emerge with a team strengthened, realigned, and ready to actively shape what arises next. The seeds planted will determine the fruits of change further down the road.
Making the change
After the creative ferment of the neutral zone, it’s time to crystallize the new beginnings taking shape. This is when reinvented purposes, roles, norms, and workflows get defined for the next chapter.
Recognize that beginnings prompt the same questions as other transitions – “who am I now?”, “how do I contribute?”, “what rules do I follow?”.
Even when people have shaped the innovations themselves, the unknown still triggers anxiety. Address this directly by ensuring that the four P’s are clear across your team – purpose, picture, plan, and part.
It’s essential that people have a clear purpose in mind, a reason this change had to take place. That’s why you need to broadcast a compelling “why” for the change on a regular basis. Doing so reminds people how the new structures map to strategic goals and better resolve high-priority problems.
Paint a vivid picture of the future state, down to how typical workdays may look and feel at an individual level. This grounds the abstract in shared tangible experiences.
Share the near-term roadmap showing the plan you’re going to use to reach that vision, including quick wins. Who owns what by when? How will we track progress? Details reassure people and pace the rollout.
It’s also essential to clarify each person’s responsibilities and priorities under the new operating model. Everyone should know the part they are going to play, and have support to develop any skills they need to play it. This reduces uncertainty about expectations.
With core building blocks framed, reinforce new beginnings through consistency, symbols, and celebration. For example, install visual cues like posters of values associated with the vision. Or develop talking points all leaders use in meetings to drive home key messages.
Define some quick collective small wins, perhaps targeting customer pain points, to demonstrate early traction. Momentum builds confidence and belief despite ongoing change. You should also consider a spirited launch celebration where people are honored for the daring ideas or experiments that got you here. Toast the pioneering spirit of transition. After all, marking fresh starts makes them real.
Anchor the next chapter by answering people’s desire to know “who we are now and what we do”. Shape identity and direction, and your team will own it.
Scales of change
As we near the end of our change journey together, let’s have a quick discussion about different scales of change within an organization.
First, we have organizational development. Organizational development is the everyday improvement of skills and processes that happen in the “business as usual” state. Leadership training programs, ongoing quality enhancement projects, introducing minor changes to tech tools – these advancements optimize work within established systems.
Bigger changes come in the form of organizational transitions. This might be large things like introducing an entirely new technology system, scaling up your production, or diversifying your product offerings. They are big but still exist within the current structure of the organization.
Every organization reaches a crossroads where external shifts and internal inertia outpace merely tweaking operations. You need periodic renewal to reinvent vision, culture, and systems for a fresh cycle of relevance. This is referred to as organizational renewal, and differs from daily development or situational transition – it’s about fundamental transformation.
Common catalysts demanding renewal include market saturation, disruptive competitors, cultural fragmentation, and even catastrophe. But the signs can be subtle too, whether creeping complacency, talent flight, or even misalignment between individual and organizational values. Leaders must tune their radar to the host of existential threats lurking beneath surface growth.
The renewal journey itself begins with a ruthless assessment of brutal truths – declining metrics, dated practices, and product gaps reflecting changed contexts since the last blueprint. Gathering such evidence is vital to pierce through your sense of denial – yet it also can spark hope for a better future.
Renewal should also revisit the foundational purpose of your organization. Why do we exist now? For whom? Does our vision align with emerging realities? Who must we become to own the future? This soul-searching reconnects people to transcendent meaning while making space for the new.
Renewal takes our transition management to the next level. More than responding to a specific opportunity or challenge with discrete solutions, deep renewal transforms organizational identity, purpose, and culture – all on a fundamental level. It’s about more than effective management and facilitation of psychological transition – but requires you to change at an existential level rather than just make operational adjustments.
This means that everything we’ve covered so far applies, whether it’s defining change impacts, honoring endings before defining next chapters, actively shaping identity in the neutral zone, or celebrating new beginnings. Renewal calls leaders to steward this long arc of fundamental corporate rebirth with extraordinary patience, courage, and care for those undertaking this profound personal passage as part of the organizational revival.
Change and Transition
The thesaurus may say that change and transition are synonyms, but they aren’t – not really. Change is a matter of a different situation presenting itself:
- A new management team comes on board.
- A company downsizes.
- A change in location.
- A merger with another organization.
- A cosmetic overhaul.
- A changes in business hours.
“Where there’s change, there’s transition.”
Those are all changes – but none of them is a transition.
A transition is a personal transformation, a three phase process of adjusting to change:
- Ending – It may seem odd to put the end at the beginning, but, in fact, every transition begins with an old situation ending. People have to end what they were, and turn loose or let go of what they had.
- Neutral zone – This phase is analogous to the birth canal, that in-between place where you are not quite where you have been but not quite where you are about to be. Crossing the neutral zone involves chaos, confusion, pressure, doubt and discomfort.
- Beginning – People who make it through the neutral zone can begin again, in a new way, energized, invigorated and prepared to make the change work.
“Before you can begin something new, you have to end what used to be.”
Transition, therefore, begins with an ending and ends with a beginning. Because it begins with an ending, it demands that you let go of what went before the change. A promotion means letting go of the old job; people who try to cling to their old jobs fail at their new ones. A merger means letting go of an old organization and adapting to a new one.
“One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”
Although it is convenient to think of transition as a three-phase process, it may be more accurate to think of it as a three-process phase. The ending, the passage through the neutral zone and the beginning all have to happen for the transition to succeed, but they do not always happen sequentially. Sometimes people may be working through two or even more of these processes at the same time. People go through transitions. Transitions are personal, emotional and psychological. Managing transition means helping people move through the phases or processes as smoothly and as swiftly as possible.
Make it as easy as possible for people to deal with the end of a prior situation. Force yourself to see clearly what is going to end and who is going to suffer what losses as a result. Develop a strategy to help them through the inevitable shocks.
“Neutral zone creativity is the key to turning transition from a time of breakdown into a time of breakthrough.”
You can do that by taking these simple but indispensable steps:
- Understand the change – Clearly explain it in words in fine detail. Be specific. Avoid generalizations.
- Look ahead – Define or map the unintended consequences of the change. Every change will cause other changes.
- Identify losses – Once you understand the change and its consequences, identify the people who are going to lose something and what they are going to lose: their colleagues, their corner offices, their status or titles, their bonus packages, their access to higher or lower levels of the organization? Whatever it is, identify it.
- Recognize the reality – Subjective and emotional losses are as real as any other kind of loss.
- Expect strong reactions – People may seem to overreact, but understand that from their point of view, strong responses are not overreactions. If a firm has just cut 10% of its workforce, it’s hardly overreaction for survivors to wonder whether their jobs will be the next to go. People will grieve. Some will be angry, some will try to bargain their way out of change and some will be anxious, sad, disoriented or even depressed.
- Be open – Communicate clearly and let people know you sympathize.
- Offer compensation – Can you repay them for what they have lost?
- Keep information flowing – Never lie. Never hide. Never miss a chance to keep people up-to-date.
- Respect the past – However, be very clear about what is ending and what is not going to end. Find some dramatic way of making the point. Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez burnt his ships at Vera Cruz, making it very clear to his men that no matter how bad things got in Mexico, they couldn’t go back to Spain.
The Neutral Zone
The neutral zone is chaotic and confusing because one phase ended and what is to come has not yet begun. People are trying to readjust their habits and expectations, re-establish networks and relationships, let go of what they were accustomed to and prepare to enter the unknown. Absenteeism rises, motivation suffers, poor performance gets even worse and good performance falls into mediocrity. No one quite knows what to expect at any level of the organization so people mill around like a crowd of strangers trying to sort itself out in alphabetical order.
“Beginnings are strange things. People want them to happen but fear them at the same time.”
Yet this period of confusion is also a very creative period. The most turbulent and difficult times are the times in which the biggest breakthroughs can occur. Liberated from the bonds of habit and custom, people are free to discover new and better ways of working.
Historically, the most famous example of passage through a neutral zone was the 40-year sojourn of the Israelites in the desert to which Moses led them. It was in the desert that a population of slaves became a nation strong enough to invade and conquer Canaan. The people who followed Moses out of slavery soon forgot the miseries of their servitude and began to look back with nostalgia on the good old days in Egypt. They complained about the lack of food. When they got food, they complained about the quality of the food. They complained about the leader. Major and minor rebellions broke out. Don’t expect an easier time than Moses had. The neutral zone is like that.
“Even at this early point in the organizational life cycle, the First Law of Organizational Development is evident: those who were most at home with the necessary activities and arrangements of one phase are the ones who are most likely to experience the subsequent phase as a severe personal setback.”
What can you do?
- Keep your demands reasonable – Don’t expect people to do more than is humanly possible. Try to put them through only one change at a time. If several changes are going to happen simultaneously, prepare people to cope with them and tell them how the whole picture fits together.
- Be prepared to scrap old rules – Drop policies and ways of working that make the transition harder than it has to be.
- Work with concise goals – Set goals achievable in the short term to keep spirits up.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate – And help people communicate among themselves.
The New Beginning
People don’t like change, generally speaking. Some don’t like setting foot outside of the comfortable, familiar routines and into the strange new world beyond the neutral zone. These employees will look back and will try to reinvent the past. Others may have enjoyed the chaos and confusion of the neutral zone because they thrive on thrills and the unexpected. For these people, the new beginning threatens boredom. So, new beginnings are risky. No one knows what the future holds, and there’s no guarantee that the new beginning will not lead to a dead end.
“Economic and social forecasting is a big business, but when tested against subsequent events, it misses as many boats as it catches.”
To succeed at the new beginning, remember the four “P’s”:
- Purpose – Leave no doubt in anyone’s mind about what you are doing and why you are doing it. Take a tip from Moses. He told people that God had promised them their own land, so they were going there. You could have asked almost anyone in that wandering tribe where they were going and why, and gotten some version of the answer: “We’re going to the land God has promised us.” People can tolerate a lot of change if they understand why it is happening. But in order to be useful, the statement of purpose has to be clear, real and specific.
- Picture – Moses engaged the imagination of his people by talking about a land flowing with milk and honey. This translated the abstraction of a promised land into something people could see. Don’t just tell people what the transition will lead to. Show them. Use models or videos or visits to other organizations that use the same system, or any aid that will help people see where they are going.
- Plan – Change is not transition, and the change plan is not the transition plan. The change plan may involve deciding when employees will vacate their desks, when the movers will come in and so on. The transition plan addresses personal, subjective, individual, emotional and psychological aspects of the transition. It may include a farewell party, an introduction to new management or information about scheduled training.
- Part – Make sure everyone plays a part in the transition. If employees are involved, they will work as part of a team to attack any problem that threatens the team’s objectives. If they are not part of the team, they will be part of the problem.
“Plans are immensely reassuring to most people, not just because they contain information but because they exist.”
Follow these four rules to make sure people keep the new beginning on track:
- Consistency – All of your actions should reinforce and support the goal you have communicated to your employees. If you have said you want people to work as a team, then reward teamwork. If you have told people that they now have three clear priorities, but still require them to do everything they did in the past, you are not being consistent. “Do more with less” guarantees that people will do less work on more assignments, because they’ll have to cut corners just to get a little done on everything you’ve thrown at them. Inconsistency is the bane of transition management.
- Go for quick wins – After the chaos of the neutral zone people may be doubtful and diffident. Boost their confidence with early, low-risk wins.
- Use the power of symbols – Even such apparently minor things as ID badges and parking stickers can send very powerful messages to your employees. In a merger, the color of the badge or sticker may be the signature color of one or the other company, of neither or a combination of the two. People will look for symbols even when there are none, therefore you are well-advised to use such symbols deliberately to reinforce the new beginning.
- Throw a success party – Mark the new beginning with a celebration. Give people T-shirts or desk ornaments or wall plaques or pens or balloons or all of these and more, whatever it takes to remove all doubt that they have indeed made it through the change and are part of the new beginning.
Organizations, like people, change and grow. When they stop changing, they die. So constant change, renewal, reinvention and adaptation must be part of every vital organization’s agenda.
Every change requires transition. It may be a big transition, as in the case of a merger, or a relatively minor transition, as in the case of a product line going to the sales force. Note the modifier ‘relatively.’ Every transition has the potential to become difficult if not properly managed.
Managing transition is a matter of being open with people and building trust. Consistency, truthfulness, clarity and communication are the core elements of transition management. Bring people on board by showing them the problem that you are trying to solve. Make it clear why you need to solve it and why you need their help. Always honor your commitments and never lie. Honesty will carry your transition program to its promised land.
Effective organizational change is both a situational and psychological journey, requiring careful strategy and deep human understanding. Emphasizing the importance of acknowledging and guiding the human transition, we’ve explored methods to prepare teams for change, manage resistance, and foster active participation in the transformation process.
Strategies like understanding the neutral zone and solidifying new beginnings are vital for not just adapting, but thriving in change. This guide not only offers practical steps for managing change but also highlights the need for empathetic leadership and a comprehensive approach that includes psychological readiness.
As we aim for transformation, not just change, we see that success lies in respecting the personal journey of each team member, turning a potentially disruptive process into an opportunity for growth and renewal.
About the Author
William Bridges is a consultant and lecturer based in Mill Valley, California. The Wall Street Journal has rated him one of the ten most popular executive development consultants in the United States. This book is an update of his 1991 classic. He is also the author of The Way of Transition: Embracing Life’s Most Difficult Moments, Transitions, JobShift and Creating You & Co.