Book: Managing Transitions

I’ve been thinking a lot about change management, lately – what makes it work, what makes it not. As a result, I was looking for reading that would help me formalize some of the concepts, to allow me to go one level deeper than recognizing what won’t work to more thoughtfully critique why certain things are ineffective, understand what appeals about them, what would be better instead. As part of this, I read Managing Transitions (Amazon) which was fascinating and really helpful. I’ve included some of my favourite quotes below (emphasis my own), but I definitely recommend reading it if you’re involved in change management in any way.

Getting people through the transition is essential if the change is actually to work as planned. When a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of the chairs.


On change as a function of change management – people actually need to do things differently as a result.

Changes of any sort—even though they may be justified in economic or technological terms—finally succeed or fail based on whether the people affected do things differently. Do the employees let go of the old way of doing things, go through that difficult time between the old way and the new, and come out doing things the new way? If companies don’t help employees through these phases even the most wonderful training programs often fall flat. The leaders forget endings and neutral zones; they try to start with the final stage of transition. And they can’t see what went wrong!

On what people miss as they take people through change – leaders are fixated on the destination, but the people whose environment is being changed have to let go of things – and that is hard.

Organizations overlook the letting-go process completely, however, and do nothing about the feelings of loss that it generates. And in overlooking those effects, they nearly guarantee that the transition will be mismanaged and that, as a result, the change will go badly. Unmanaged transition makes change unmanageable.

The failure to identify and get ready for endings and losses is the largest difficulty for people in transition. And the failure to provide help with endings and losses leads to more problems for organizations in transition than anything else.

If there is one thing that is harder than a difficult transition, it is a whole string of them occurring because somebody is pushing one change after another and forgetting about transition.

It’s important to address the losses head on, and to allow space for (natural!) anxiety.

Managers are sometimes worried about talking so openly, some even arguing that it will “stir up trouble” to acknowledge people’s feelings. What such an argument misses is that it is not talking about a loss but rather pretending that it doesn’t exist that stirs up trouble.

Anxiety—silently expressed, a realistic fear of an unknown and probably difficult future or simply catastrophic fantasies. Anxiety is natural, so don’t make people feel stupid for feeling it. Just keep feeding them the information as it comes and empathize with them when it doesn’t.

One of the most important leadership roles during times of change is that of putting into words what it is time to leave behind. Because talking about making a break with the past can upset its defenders, some leaders shy away from articulating just what it is time to say goodbye to. But in their unwillingness to say what it is time to let go of, they are jeopardizing the very change that they believe they are leading.

On the need for empathy in managing transition – poor change managers focus on the process, rather than the people involved.

The single biggest reason organizational changes fail is because no one has thought about endings or planned to manage their impact on people. Naturally concerned about the future, planners and implementers all too often forget that people have to let go of the present first. They forget that while the first task of change management is to understand the desired outcome and how to get there, the first task of transition management is to convince people to leave home. You’ll save yourself a lot of grief if you remember that.

It ends with an excellent section on building trust – 10 very good points – that ends with this statement that is both simple and damning of those who fail.

If all of this is too complicated to remember, and you want a single key to the building of trust, just remind yourself, “Tell the truth”.

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