When we think of change we often think about it like the following diagram.

There is nothing wrong with this picture from a change perspective. A change will occur.

What is missing from this picture in order to make the change successful and build a solid foundation for future change is the transition.

As William Bridges, a preeminent authority on change and transition, said:

‘It’s not the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.’

So what are some of the other differences between change and transition?

Closing the loop

Managing transitions is the step in the following diagram that is the most overlooked yet is the most important if a change is to be successful. If done well, step 4 closes the loop of organisational change management.

Doing it well means that we can move on to step 5 and people will identify the next problem or opportunity to address. If we don’t get step 4 right, step 5 will stop happening and people will not put their hand up to suggest another change. If we don’t get step 4 right it will take a lot longer to get the next change to take affect.

Getting it right means that we can do more, which is what is called for in a time of rapid transformation and the need to be more agile. Getting it right gives organisations a competitive advantage.

So, how do we manage these transitions? Let’s look at the work of Arnold van Gennep, Kurt Lewin and William Bridges and how we can learn from them.

Rites of passage

‘Rites of passage’ was a term created by the French ethnographer, Arnold van Gennep, in his work ‘Les rites de passage’ in 1909.

His study looked at the ‘rites of passage’ associated with a major life-changing event such as marriage, death, and moving from childhood to adulthood.

He systematically compared those ceremonies that celebrate an individual’s transition from one status to another within a given society. He found a three-stage sequence: separation, transition, and incorporation.

He determined that we don’t go straight from separation to incorporation but rather go though a transitional stage where we are no longer in the old identify but also not fully in the new one either.

This is what happens to us when we experience a change, whether it is a change in process, technology or role etc. We have to separate from how things used to be, cross what Gennep calls a ‘threshold’ towards creating a new way of doing things, and then gradually incorporate (consolidate) the new way of doing things into business-as-usual.

This is similar to an early model of change developed by Kurt Lewin

Ice ice baby!

Lewin was a social psychologist and developed this model in the 1940’s.

Lewin also described change as a three-stage process.

It’s a simple model and often criticised for being so. However it is a useful model to explain in simple terms the people side of change.

His three stages of change are: unfreezing, transition (or change) and freezing.


This is about preparing to change. It requires an understanding of the necessity to change and getting ready to move out of our comfort zone.

This is where we need to ‘create a sense of urgency’ – to quote John Kotter.

We need to address the ‘what’s in it for me’ aspect of change.


Lewin said that change is not an event – it is a process called transition.

The transition is the inner journey people take in reaction to a change. People are ‘unfrozen’ and move towards a new way or working.

This is the hardest stage as people are unsure, uncertain, and even fearful. A person may understand the benefits of the change but it can still be a scary time.

There is also no set time limit on transition. People will transition at different speeds.

This is where organisational change management needs to surface resistance to change and put in place tactics to overcome it. Support is also needs so that people feel equipped to support the change through training, coaching and mentoring, and access to supporting materials and tools.

Open two-way communication channels are key.


This is the stage that brings about stability once the changes have been made and accepted that they are now the new way of working – and the norm.

The change becomes embedded as business-as-usual.

Freezing provides the solid foundation for the next ‘unfreeze’.

Managing Transitions

‘Managing Transitions’ is a publication from William Bridges in which he builds upon the works of people like Gennep and Lewin.

Bridges was a change consultant and his ‘Managing Transitions’ book was first published in 1991.

Like Gennep and Lewin, Bridges focuses on transition rather than change. He also has a three-step model:

1.    Ending, losing and letting go

2.    The neutral zone

3.    The new beginning

The diagram below illustrates the emotions that people may experience in each step of the transition.

Ending, losing and letting go

People enter this stage when first presented with a change. It is often marked with resistance and emotional upheaval because people are forced to let go of something that they have been comfortable with.

Tactics to help people transition through this stage include:

·      Communicate individual behaviour change

·      Identify and understand who will lose what

·      Sell the problem

·      Paint a picture of the benefits

·      Talk to people and ask what problems they have with the change

·      Empathise and understand people’s emotions

·      Allow time to accept the change and let go

·      Encourage people to share and talk about their feelings

·      Listen

·      Open communication

·      Hold regular meetings before, during and after the change

·      Remember – loss is subjective – your point of view is irrelevant!

The neutral zone

In this stage, people are often confused, uncertain and impatient. This is the bridge between the old and the new.

Anxiety rises and motivation falls. People are often overloaded as they get used to using new processes, tools etc.

People can become polarised as some rush forward and others stay back and hang on.

Tactics to help people transition through this stage include:

·      Set the bar low and celebrate small wins

·      Provide a solid sense of direction

·      Provide training on teamwork, problem solving etc.

·      Don’t overpromise output during this time

·      Do anything you can to boost morale

·      Set short term goals so people feel achievement

·      Help people manage workloads

·      Empathise but remind people of the benefits of the change

·      Meet frequently to discuss the change and give feedback on how people are performing in regards to the change

·      Review policies and procedures to make sure they are are consistent with the change

New beginnings

This is the third and last stage of transition. People have started to embrace the change and the new way of working.

At this stage it is all about reinforcement of the change. People are building the skills and capabilities to work in the new way and starting to see some successes from their efforts.

Tactics to help people in this stage include:

·      Celebrate successes

·      Reward people and teams

·      Do not be complacent as people can still revert to old ways of working and their previous comfort zone

·      Check that policies and procedures are consistent with the new beginning so that inconsistencies aren’t sending mixed messages


When asked to manage a change, remember that for success what you really need to do is manage the transition.

Change will happen whether we like it or not. What will not happen is people’s transition into that change.

Leaders need to take on the role of transition manager understanding that changes will not stick unless we help people with the emotional responses to change, the confusion and uncertainty and enabling them to embrace the new way.

‘It’s not the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.


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