The process of change: managing transitions

Anchoring change in corporate cultureThe Thomas change process model

We all go through transitions in our everyday lives, some easier than others. Sarah Lowes, one of our training experts, shares our checklist for managing transitions.

Recently, a celebration was held to mark my father’s retirement after a 37 year career. I opened the event with a speech quoting T.S. Eliot: “What we call the beginning is often the end.”[1]

In the subsequent weeks, I reflected on the importance of these rites of passage in our lives: the marking of the end of one phase, so that you can move more fully on to the next. We all go through transitions in our everyday lives, some easier than others.

In business, we so often forget to allow ourselves, our employees and our organisations the time to mark such moments. Resistance from the workforce is one of the mostu common reasons for failure when trying to implement large scale change. What I have learned is that no matter the situation, change starts with an ending and the management of those endings and the transition into the next phase must be incorporated into the plan. By skipping the opportunity to mark a proper ending, the job of trying to establish the ‘new normal’ will be challenging and your employees are more likely to continue with old practices.  

A round man cannot be expected to fit in a square hole right away. He must have time to modify his shape.

Mark Twain

The trick is all in the timing...don't rush!

To move onto a new phase without dwelling on the past, it is important to acknowledge and accept where you have come from. This is reflected in William Bridges' Transitions model [2] – when experiencing change and transition, his three stages allow you to:

  1. Let go. Recognise that something is changing, acknowledge it and mark its passing.
  2. Define the new normal, challenge it, accept the chaos that comes with it and then make it your own.
  3. Establish the new. Reinforce why you have moved on, nurture the new beginning and connect each individual to it to make it stick.

​Bridges explains that change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new structure, the new team, the new role, the new procedure. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Remember that change is external and transition is internal.

Leaders can have a tendency during transition periods to work in the background on what the 'new normal' needs to look like and then present it to their business all boxed up and ready to go. However, the 'ta dah' moment often lacks the positive reaction leaders want: rather than praise, gratitude and excitement, they get a whole load of questions. What is sometimes forgotten is that, even if the change is positive, it requires us to make a mental transition. We need a process or a ritual through which we can absorb and come to terms with an alternative way of working.

Building resilience

Rosabeth Moss Kanter talks of how, in this ever-changing world, resilience is the new skill that we all need: "Whatever the source, what matters is how we deal with [change]."[3]

Allowing people to transition does not always require something as significant as service of celebration. The ritual can be as simple as establishing the practice of personal reflection: giving people the mental space to understand what change means for them, how it impacts them emotionally and to figure out how to deal with it.

I spend much of my working life facilitating the creation of this space through coaching. For me, an individual’s level of adaptability (something that we at Thomas can identify through the use of our Trait Emotional Intelligence Questionnaire) has a significant impact on their resilience when it comes to change. I have witnessed many times the moment when the weight of change lifts off someone’s shoulders as they are suddenly able to be objective about their ability to adapt. They begin to understand the impact change has on them and how they can deal with it. 

Our checklist for managing the transition:

  1. Communicate the impending change effectively – make sure everyone understands why the change is necessary
  2. Expect different reactions from people and prepare yourself to adapt your style to each
  3. Treat the past with respect and recognise its value
  4. Give people the information in various ways and allow opportunities to ask questions
  5. Help people to feel they are still valued during the transition – praise ideas, get people involved
  6. Feedback continuous progress
  7. Do not force the new beginning too soon
  8. Make sure people know what part they play in the new way
  9. Plan to celebrate the new beginning

[1] TS Eliot, Four Quartets Section V
[2] Image accessed 02 August 2015 -
[3] Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Surprises are the New Normal, Resilience is the New Skill (Harvard Business Review, 17 July 2013)  

Reuben Conibear

Reuben Conibear

Reuben has worked in the Marketing team at Thomas for just over 3 and half years. As Marketing Executive, Reuben's core focus is to ensure a high quality experience for Thomas customers at all times. In his spare time, Reuben enjoys kayaking, bouldering and spending time with his friends and family.