Organisations are constantly in motion. Expanding and shrinking. Accelerating and slowing down. Pursuing and following. A business represents a fluid system that exerts and reacts to forces both internal and external, known and unknown. The better equipped organisations are to cope with their dynamic nature the quicker and faster they can move forward.
This article examines a little acknowledged element, in an organisation’s ability to cope with the ever-present tumult that it faces: 'moments of transition.' Understanding how to identify and support transition phases, both in structured change efforts, as well as everyday momentum shifts, is vital, if organisations are to succeed. Failure to grasp the significance of moments of transition, leaves all those affected by the change effort unsure and often slow to react.
To appreciate the importance of transition we need to be clear on the other states of being between which moments of transition exist.
Having asserted that organisations are always moving, it may seem counter-intuitive to start by exploring the idea of stasis but it is important. A halt to overt change is something many people within organisations long for. The idea that, “we’re moving too fast” or “we need to time to embed the changes we have just made” is heard often at watercoolers or in team meetings across all organisations. But this Nirvana-like condition of stasis, is largely a myth. There can be a felt sense of inertia but if you look closely, there is either forward momentum or regression, with few, if any, real moments of complete organisational stillness.
So that leaves us with two key organisational states. Transactional and transformational change are two models of change that HR professionals and Heads of Organisational Design would recognise. It is worth taking a moment to explore these before we turn to Transitional change, which is our main focus.
Transactional shifts changes that are seen on a regular basis, which leaders and managers (henceforth, ‘leaders’) are often asked to deliver. The features of transactional change differ depending on the circumstances but it emerges as follows:
The change is felt in specific parts of the business because the scale of the change required is relatively contained in nature. As a result of the more confined scale, the culture of the team, function or organisation, remains stable throughout and beyond the change effort. In this kind of shift, leaders are asked to help produce clear, predictable outcomes, such as a restructure of their function. Changes of this nature can be delivered using known and understood processes and procedures, which are common to all. This means that not only are leaders aware of how to deliver the required outcomes, but ‘followers’ also have little requirement to change how they normally behave, the procedures they follow etc.
Transformational change, on the other hand, is different in nature. Transformation is often the focus of a concerted push for a particular, larger-scale change. The impacts of transformations are global in nature. They often affect the whole organisation e.g. changes to the reward system that recognises behaviours in addition to outcomes. The impacts of transformational changes are often felt at a systemic level. They can result in a significant shift in organisational culture too, even when culture change is not the primary focus of the change effort. Transformational change requires significant adaptation in all recipients of the change. Getting familiar with new processes and systems takes time and effort. Transformational change efforts need proactive, engaged leadership, focused not only on delivery but on embedding the change.
‘Moments of transition’ sit between the three states of stasis, transaction and transformation. Think of the changing of the seasons: As we move from Summer to Autumn, there are days that seem most definitely cooler and duller and yet, these can be interspersed with sunny days that remind us of the Summer passed. The uncertainty of knowing which season we are currently in, can also be felt inside organisation at times of change. Such ‘moments of transition’ are the gateway to a new state of being within organisations.
Transition is the period of greatest discomfort for leaders and wider organisation. It is the state into which people can often find themselves, not sure of quite how they arrived there. People know that change is required but at this point they are often not totally clear about what that change should be, how to make it happen or indeed, how long any such change effort will last.
Indeed, the timing of when to commit to taking the plunge and moving out of transition and into a different change state can be really confusing. This is often a point of low engagement and even some dissatisfaction. Couple this uncertainty with the prospect of taking on lots of new information, adapting to new ways of working and losing many of those things that are familiar, then it is not surprising that so many people report not liking change.
Leaders need to parallel process during the transition period, keeping the wheels of the business moving whilst also planning and preparing for the changes to come. That is no easy task. It requires the ability to step back, recognise what is happening around them and then summon the energy to continue to lead. In our work with HR professionals we see the impacts of ‘moments of transition’ on all involved. We recognise transition to be the time of greatest discomfort and so we recommend that it is also the point of maximum individualised support.