Transitions – in life, in business, in relationships, always involve letting go of what came before – some of which you probably liked quite a lot. You were comfortable and you were good at it and now it’s clunky and awkward, while both the clock and the expectations of others relentlessly march ahead. Transitions are difficult and necessary. If you get through the transition and learn what you need to learn, you have successfully changed and are unlikely to snap back to the old way of doing things. As William Bridges, the organizational guru says, “without a transition, change is just a rearrangement of the furniture.”
Leaders can often get change started, but have a devilish time seeing transitions through. Strangely, their bright and shiny promises of an amazing future get hazy once everyone starts moving. To put it another way, anyone can go to the gym the week after New Year’s – but how many are still there by March first? Fewer still make it to summer and even less see it through the entire year. Pretty soon you forget why it was so important to go to the gym in the first place.
Transitioning is difficult – when you are in the place where you don’t really know what you are doing but you have realized it’s not as easy as you thought. There’s a reason Cortes burned his ships; get far enough into the transition zone, and you can’t go back. The only choice is to move ahead. It’s hard to see what’s on the other side, and leaders must provide the faith and optimism that the journey is worth the walk.
Transitions take time and commitment and discipline… and guts and grit and perseverance. In our hyper-distracted workplaces, seeing a group of people all the way through a transition takes the extraordinary efforts of all involved, including the leaders. Yet many leaders think if they have a good plan, set some metrics, and give a good speech they have done all they need to see change succeed. Strategies don’t fail because they aren’t smart and well-planned; they fail because of execution and the ongoing leadership required to keep a group moving towards a goal. The reality is leaders have to stay in it, day after day, as the group slowly makes its way through the transition zone, sharing their vision, championing the future, and most of all keeping people moving, putting one foot in front of the other.
To read more about William Bridges’ work, check out Managing Transitions or find one of his best articles, “Getting Through the Wilderness.”