Perhaps it’s natural to think about change in the new year. It marks a new calendar period, the start of brighter evenings, a change of seasons…depending on where you are in the world. The first time I visited Thailand was a big change for me, my first experience of Asia, somewhere I had longed to visit for years. It was December, the end of one year with a new year in sight. It was a development programme for leaders from 17 countries, an exciting experience.
One of the speakers, Dr Lim Peng Soon, led a day looking at Managing Transitions, based on William Bridges’ research and writings under that same title. I want to share some of his insights here, drawing on Bridges and some of my own insights too in case they may be of benefit to others. I’m also interested to hear more from you on this topic, e.g. what have you experienced, noticed or learned when leading or coaching others through change?
We can distinguish between ‘change’ and ‘transition’ as something like this: change is what happens around us; transition is what happens within us. In other words, change is situational, transition is psychological or even spiritual. The latter is a process of reorientation from what-has-been to what-is-going-to-be. This involves moving from endings (leaving the past) through a ‘neutral zone’ (the inbetween phase) to a new beginning (the future state).
If change leaders don’t pay attention to leading transitions alongside leading change, they can lose talented people, struggle with communication as anxiety is high or trust is eroded, find low levels of poor performance or high levels of stress and absenteeism. This demands attention from the outset. How people experience leadership and change will have as much impact on the desired outcomes as practical change plans and programmes.
As Soon comments, ‘In change management you start with the end in mind. In transitions management you start with the end-ings in mind’. This points to the need to recognise that change often implies loss or leaving. Who will lose what? How far does it matter to them? How can we mark endings and show proper respect for the past? What can we hold onto alongside that which will change in order to ensure a degree of continuity?
The endings phase starts as soon as people become aware of the changes. As leaders, it’s a phase that at its best entails drawing close to people, listening to them, hearing their questions and concerns. Too much emphasis on a positive future can feel insensitive at this stage, especially if it seems to negate or prohibit people sharing how they feel about the loss that change implies. ‘When you’re feeling the pain, it can be hard to see the gain.’
The neutral zone is where people often feel ambiguous or disorientated. They may be starting to move on but haven’t yet let go of the past or grasped hold of the future. During this phase, the future may seem unclear, uncertain or scary. People may feel more confused, irritable and tired than usual. They may appear to zigzag between moods, sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes despondent. As leaders, listen, be patient and be prepared to provide support.
The new beginnings phase is where the proverbial psychological dust is beginning to settle, the future looks clearer, people start to feel more focused and energised and previous difficulties are perceived as opportunities or challenges. People are ready to move on, to push ahead with creating and stepping into the future state. As leaders, this is the time to positively envision, to stoke the fires of inspiration, to involve people in creative and engaging tasks.
In my experience, one of the biggest leadership challenges is to be sensitive and patient throughout the transition. Leaders tend to go through transitions faster because they create and lead the change. It takes time for other people to work through the changes the leaders have already processed. People can be inappropriately labelled as ‘resistant to change’ when they are simply working through a normal transition process and experience.
On this point, Soon cautions us to be aware of the ‘marathon effect’. Leaders may race ahead and become very critical of people apparently lagging behind, especially if they appear to be holding up the changes. In a marathon, the front row sets off first but it takes a while for the middle section to start moving and even longer for people at the back. By the time people in the middle and back sections are moving, leaders can be already racing off to the next initiative.
Finally, the fact that people go through the same change doesn't mean they go through the same transition. Some may embrace change enthusiastically from the outset, others may struggle at first but move on to become solid supporters in time. In Bridges' model, people tend to experience something of all three states simultaneously. It's really a question of which is the dominant state at any point in time and to act as leaders and coaches accordingly.
It was minus 7 so I got up early to scrape ice off the car windows. The journey to the train station that followed felt like torture. I got stuck behind a JCB for 10 miles with nowhere to pass. It reached a peak of 20mph and I kept glancing at the clock anxiously. Was I going to make it? I could feel the frustration like a tight knot in my stomach. Every passing moment felt like slow motion. I kept looking ahead, hoping for a clear stretch to overtake. It took forever. When I finally did get past, I felt like waving an angry gesture at the JCB driver. ‘How could you be such a *£%!&$* pain?!’
I left the car and jogged the final 10 minutes to the station. According to the clock, I’d missed the train but adrenaline spurred me on. On arrival, breathless, I discovered the train was running late. I caught it, stepped on board just as it pulled into the station. I sighed with great relief. Yet what a waste of nervous energy. The pressure I put myself under not to miss the train. The imagined exaggerated consequences if I were to arrive late. The risk of dangerous driving in icy conditions. My ungracious attitude towards the JBC driver. The life draining stress of an impatient journey.
How much of my life I live under self-imposed pressure. The deadlines I create for myself. The expectations I place on myself. The determination to arrive on time, never to be late. The avoidance of risks that could lead to a mistake. The drive to do everything perfectly. The unwillingness to let a ball drop. The desire always to do well, never to fail. Such pressures can drive me inwards, close me down, cause me to lose contact with God, lose contact with people. It leaves me tired, stressed, anxious, irritable, frustrated and self-centric. It’s not the kind of person I want to be.
I can almost hear God whispering to me, ‘Stop…look...listen...look up and around you…breathe…’ It’s about regaining perspective, keeping the most important things in view. Not losing sight of the people, the things, the issues, the actions that matter most. It’s about loosening my grip, learning to prioritise, learning to negotiate, increasing flexibility. I know these things in my head, I practice them in my work, but the experience this morning has flashed into consciousness with renewed energy and vision. It’s something about learning to live, to love and to know peace.
If you’re tempted to cut back on L&D when budgets are tight, think twice. ‘Isn’t it easier to cut staff training than to make cuts in other business areas?’ Easier, maybe; wiser, maybe not. Let me pose four inter-related reasons why business leaders should pause before letting the axe fall.
Consider your talent. Talented people are those who make a disproportionate contribution to your organisation’s success. They’re the ones who leave a big hole if they leave. They’re also the ones who will find it easiest to leave if you don’t invest in their learning and growth.
Consider what makes your business succeed. Whatever your business is and does, I can guarantee it will depend on knowledgeable, skilful people. Disinvest in people development and, over time, your knowledge and skills base will erode and your performance with it.
Consider engagement. Engaged people are those who put in discretionary effort, sell your business by their enthusiasm, inspire and motivate others to do their best. Such people love to learn and grow. Cut back on L&D and you risk losing the hearts of your most committed players.
Consider your customers. They look to your business with high expectations of high quality products or services, and high quality customer service. If customer experience is compromised by poor service from untrained or disheartened staff, you can wave goodbye to their cash.
But what are the corresponding demands on L&D? Is L&D as an investment of value per se? It does symbolise valuing and investing in people. Nevertheless, the onus lies on L&D professionals to ensure its value in terms of attraction, retention, development and business results.
I would be interested to hear of any examples from organisations where business leaders have chosen to continue or increase investment in L&D in hard economic times. For example, what were the drivers, what convinced you, how did you achieve it, what were the results?
Strategic thinking is about keeping the big picture in view. It’s often about asking the right questions, questions that frame or reframe an issue and place it in a broader perspective. It’s about stepping back, raising awareness, challenging assumptions, discerning what’s most important. This demands listening to God, our environment, ourselves and each other.
In order to do this well, we need to develop an ability to step back from immediate detail, plans and activity. Imagine yourself with a camera. It’s about zooming out to see the wider landscape, the ‘what else’ that can go unnoticed. It’s often the bigger frame that makes sense of what we’re seeing when we zoom in. It provides context, a basis for meaning-making.
The value of stepping back mentally, metaphorically zooming out in this way, is that we can re-evaluate our priorities, our direction, what we’re spending time and resources on, how we’re approaching things, whether we’re focusing on the right things, whether we’re allowing ourselves to become distracted by things that are not adding optimum value.
One way to develop our strategic thinking ability is to jot down sample questions that can help draw the big picture into view. ‘What do our customers or beneficiaries value most?’, ‘What are our competitors planning and doing?’, ‘What are the major forces driving change in our environment or sector?’, ‘What challenges and opportunities are emerging over the horizon?’
Be open and curious. ‘What would a great outcome look and feel like for our different stakeholders?’, ‘What do we do best?’, ‘What do we feel called to do?’, ‘Who are our potential allies?’, ‘What assumptions are we making?’, ‘What are we avoiding?’, ‘How are we constraining ourselves?’, ‘What might someone else see that we’re not seeing?’
Another way is to start with a day to day issue, perhaps something you’re working on at the moment. At an operational level, the key concern is how to do it well to achieve the desired results. It’s as if the frame has already been set. ‘This is what I need to do. I will spend my time, effort and resources on working out how best to achieve it, then do it.’
Now step back from the same issue a little and ask yourself or invite someone else to ask you some wider tactical questions. ‘What is it that makes this task so important?’, ‘What other ways could I achieve the same, or even better result?’, ‘How does what I’m doing dovetail with related tasks that others are doing?’, ‘How well does this serve our overall team goals?’
Take successive steps back until the questions you are asking draw the wider external environment and future considerations into account (as above). Now you are likely to be approaching a strategic level. The further you step back, the more research it is likely to entail. It’s about moving outwards from your normal frame of reference to consider wider issues that may prove pivotal.
What all these questions do so far is to develop an awareness of ‘what else is in the picture that we should take account of in our key decisions?’ In other words, they focus on the ‘what’. The next stage involves discernment, or the ‘so what’. What does all you’ve been thinking about, looking at, exploring and researching point towards that could be significant?
Facing multiple issues, knowns and unknowns, clarity and ambiguity, can feel bewildering. In light of this, moving forward may best involve working with others, drawing on shared thinking, experience, intuition, listening and prayer. ‘What are we hearing?’, ‘What should we pay attention to and what can we safely ignore?’
The final phase, the ‘now what’, involves making strategic decisions. These are the fundamental decisions that will form the basis of subsequent strategising and planning. The best decisions provide focus and clarity. ‘This is how the strategy will achieve our vision’, ‘This is what we will do and not do’, ‘This is how we will resource the organisation to achieve it.’
The process as a whole is about learning to plan with our eyes open. It’s about seeking to be open, exercising wise judgement and making sound decisions. In light of the fluid, rapidly changing and often unpredictable environments that many organisations are facing these days, strategic review and re-focus is now more often an on-going than periodic venture.
Dave arrived clutching a notepad and pen in hand. ‘Can we use this meeting to create a strategy?’ I was his coach and intrigued by this request. ‘I guess we could do that,’ I replied, ‘and I’m wondering what else is in the picture that may explain why you’ve brought it here.’ He looked surprised at first, then a little sheepish. I continued, ‘It might normally be something you would work on with your line-manager. After all, it’s his role to mentor you in this area.’
Dave put his paper down, sighed and explained how he and his line-manager had had an argument that week. Things felt very frosty between them now and Dave felt abandoned with the strategy piece. So I proposed options for the way forward. ‘We could use this meeting to look at the strategy, or we would use our time to explore how you might move forward in your relationship with your line-manager. What would be the best use of this time for you?’
Dave chose to switch the agenda to the relational piece. If he could resolve that, he could work on the strategy with his line-manager and that would be more effective in the long run anyway. It was a good lesson for me in pausing and stepping back one pace before diving in. ‘Why this, why now?’ or ‘What else is going on here?’ can be useful questions to ask oneself or the client before racing ahead into action points.
Sarah looked stressed as she handed me the report. ‘Could you cast an eye over this for me before I forward it to the management team?’ I noticed the tension in her voice. ‘What kind of feedback would you find helpful at this stage?’ I asked. I had learned through experience that, sometimes, when a person asks for feedback they are really seeking affirmation. ‘Any comments on how it could be improved’, she replied.
I glanced at the report and it looked confused, unclear. I felt surprised because, when this person had spoken on the subject earlier, they had sounded very clear. I started to make amendments to the text in an attempt to streamline it but it quickly looked like a teacher’s red pen all over the page. So I stepped back and thought, ‘what would make the biggest improvement?’ and jotted down a few notes along those lines instead.
Nevertheless, I still felt uneasy. What was really going on here? I mentioned my unease to Sarah and commented on how the written piece came across very differently to her spoken presentation. ‘I don’t like putting things in writing’, she replied, ‘I struggle to say what I really want to say.’ ‘How critical is it that you should submit a written report?’ I asked. She looked surprised, hadn’t thought of that. ‘What format would enable you to present at your best?’
Sarah went away and discussed this idea with her own line-manager. She had assumed a written report was needed whereas he now assured her it wasn’t. As a result, she decided instead to leave the report and to present orally to the management team. I could see a huge weight lifted off her shoulders. Once again, it was valuable to step back from the immediate presenting task to consider what might lie behind it.
And so it strikes me there’s wisdom in being curious, in exploring the story behind the story. Not jumping to conclusions too quickly, not looking before leaping. I need to be careful of my own need to feel needed, my own need to resolve the dilemma that could drive me to focus on addressing the immediate presenting issue. I need to learn to pause, breathe, pray, take one step back and enable the client to do the same.
Management literature is filled with guidance and case studies on how to change organisational culture. Some view culture as an overarching descriptor of ‘how we do things round here’. Others view it as a shared underlying belief system that influences behaviour and practice.
I think there’s some truth in both these viewpoints. They point to the shared nature of culture, that is, it includes the individual yet extends beyond towards a group: its values and ways of acting. It’s this shared dimension that differentiates culture from individual thinking or behaving.
Yet it still feels like something is missing. Culture is a felt experience. Observing culture, studying it, analysing it, isn’t the same as directly experiencing it. It’s something about what it feels like, what it means personally, existentially to be part of something bigger than myself.
And yet it isn’t just something I feel. It’s about a mood, a shared experience, something we within the culture feel, together. It’s an intangible phenomenon, a group dynamic, that feels tangible. It guides us, moves us, motivates us in subconscious ways that feel natural and mysterious.
This is one of the reasons why culture change programmes are so problematic. If culture was simply about thinking or behaviour, it would be possible to devise methods that motivate and enable change in these areas. In some situations, that may well be all that is needed.
In transformational change, however, we must pay attention to deep rooted existential issues, psychodynamic and social psychological phenomena, cultural climate and experience. It’s about working-with, certainly not doing-to, and that demands humility, wisdom and patience.