Change Management Or Transition Management?

A train requires two well-maintained rails to reach its destination. Like the train, organizations going through change require two well-maintained rails to succeed: a change management plan and a transition management strategy. Even though both are necessary, one usually gets most of the attention. “While most leaders focus the majority of their time and attention on the numbers, the people issues often make or break a deal.” (Gambill and Hodge)

What’s difference between Change Management and Transition Management? “Change is the event and transition is the process.” (W. Bridges) Change Management concerns itself with the physical aspects of change- what needs to be done, when and by whom. Transition Management, on the other hand, is about people and how they are affected by the change. Transitions must be managed carefully to enable people to let go and reorient themselves so that the change can work.

In my experience, most leaders seem to understand Change Management, but they have not done very well at managing transitions. There can be many reasons for this, but the most common is simply that the details clamour for attention.

Let me illustrate, I was contracted to assist management with the transitions issues of moving into a new facility. After four days of management training, I met with division managers to help them develop a transition management plan for their departments. We began with a reminder of the difference between Change Management and Transition Management. Then, we agreed that we would focus on Transition Management. After only five minutes of discussion, information came to light about structural problems with the facility. Immediately, the managers pounced on the problem, asking probing questions about the causes and offered possible solutions to resolve the issue. As the discussion continued, I asked a parenthetical question, “Just curious, is this discussion about Change Management or Transition Management?” One of the managers turned red and said, “Alright, we get your point.”

This is usually how Transition Management gets squeezed out of the picture. It is not intentional; it is simply that the devil is in the details. Naturally, management focuses on the issues that seem most pressing. Later, when it comes time for the changes to occur, leaders encounter surprising difficulties: dependable employees resist making the prescribed changes, confusion and conflicts erupt in the workplace, costs escalate and increased sick leave, to name a few. Unfortunately, many leaders assume that if they plan the change carefully enough, the transition will follow automatically.

Managing transitions can be frustrating for leaders because the process is not linear or sequential (like Change Management). Transition Management requires a multifaceted, simultaneous approach. In other words, there are a variety of ways to support people throughout the change process. Some managers feel their job is done if they provide Stress Management assistance. My answer would be “It’s a good start.”

This is probably sounding all too familiar for managers entrusted with implementing change. After identifying some of the traps and pitfalls of the change process, it begs the question: What can managers do to implement changes more successfully? There is not one easy answer. Let me suggest six topic areas that will help managers head in the right direction. The list is not exhaustive, but indicates the kind of needs people have that go through change: Leadership, Engagement, Trust and Betrayal, Coping with Anger, Transition Management, Communication.

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