William Bridges on Change, Transitions, and the Neutral Zone: Part I

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Inside of every change is a transition, or a series of transitions.

While changes can be planned and managed, people need to be led through transitions. Not addressing transitions effectively is a key contributor to the estimated 70 percent failure rate of organizational change efforts.

My favorite perspective on the relationship between change and transition comes from William Bridges, whose pioneering work spanned three decades.

Discerning the difference between change and transition is key to understanding Bridges’ contributions–Changes are events that happen instantly or incrementally over time. Transition is a psychological process that takes place deep below the surface as people adapt to the losses and new demands imposed by a change.

Bridges’ Model is Elegantly Simple and Immensely Useful–

 First, changes create endings. 

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Next, endings throw people into a state of transition known as the neutral zone– The neutral zone is fraught with uncertainty, ambiguity, and loss (relationships, status, stability, etc.). It is a state of “not knowing,” and “not yet,” where familiar ways of working, leading, and being may no longer work as expected, if at all.

Then, in their own time, transitions give way to new beginnings

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The neutral zone may be fraught with stress, discomfort, self-questioning, and a deep sense of not knowing how to be in the new reality–Even when changes are planned and positive, sustaining them takes time and persistence to deal with the transitions that follow. Anyone who has changed careers, left or lost a relationship, or vowed to manage time better, exercise regularly, or eat healthier has experienced the discomfort of being in the neutral zone.

Why Bridges’ Contributions are So Important for Leaders–

By naming the neutral zone as the invisible “elephant” of change and transition, Bridges gives leaders a critical puzzle piece for effectively managing and leading change and growth efforts. He does not suggest that employees need to be coddled, or that CEOs should practice psychotherapy, just that the people side of change cannot be ignored. His model suggests that strategic plans and change management are not substitutes for change leadership.

Part II of this post will explore what leaders can do to prepare for and leverage the neutral zone to create breakthrough business innovations.

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Publications by William Bridges:

  • Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, 2009. Print.
  • “Transition and Renewal.” Organizations in Transition Newsletter. William Bridges & Associates 13.3 (2000).
  • Getting Them Through The Wilderness: A Leader’s Guide to Transition. http://www.wmbridges.com/pdf/getting-thru-wilderness-2006-v2.pdf

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