by Mary Therese Durr
Date Published September 8, 2015 - Last Updated May 11, 2016

Imagine a river. You are on one side of the river and need to cross to the other side. There is no bridge. How do you get there? Do you even want to cross the river? What lies on the other side?

Change and the River - Henri Hajj

Photo by Henri Hajj

Now imagine a change in your life. For example, you begin reporting to a different supervisor. The change is immediate. Navigating how to work with this person is NOT immediate. You are faced with navigating across a river to a whole new landscape. How do you navigate or transition to this new arrangement? How do you navigate or transition to the other side of the river? Do you jump right in?

I recently moved from my large condo to a small condo. That was my decision. But it has been difficult. Although I chose to make this change, it has been sad and disruptive. Why do I continue to drive home to the old condo? Why are my coffee cups on a different side of the sink? And why does it take me longer to get out of the house and to drive to work than when I lived farther away?

I can blame change for this chaos. But the real blame is on the human side of change; it is the transition, not the change, that causes disruption. The move happened. Like a light switching off and on, change happens all at once. Transition, however takes time. The new reality is the new condo.

Transition, the passage from where I was to where I am, happens over time. Transition is like crossing a river. It takes time and can take different routes.

In the field of IT, we are often the change agent. We push through the change. We drag our users, customers, co­workers, and often ourselves through the transition. It is like dragging a person across a river. We might make it to the other side, but in what shape are we, and they, when we get there?

In the field of IT, we are often the change agent. We drag our users, customers, co­workers, and often ourselves through the transition.
Tweet: IT is often the change agent. We drag users, customers, co­workers, and ourselves through the transition. @ThinkHDI

Change is constant, especially in IT. What are our challenges? What is the speed, slope, and flow of the river? What is the ability and capacity of the person crossing? What does the person need to leave behind to cross? If nothing is left behind, will we make it across? Are we resisting the new situation or are we resisting crossing the river? Are we resisting the change or are we resisting the transition? In moving from a large condo to a small condo, I consciously chose to make this change. So, why is the change affecting my arrival time at work? Is there a dragon in my driveway blocking my path? Surprisingly, there is.

The dragon is actually my basal ganglia. This is the part of the brain that controls habit. Habit gives us routines and the ability to do things without thinking. I habitually reverse out of my driveway and turn up the road. There is no thinking involved. My dragon is in charge, and she works autonomously and automatically. I accomplish this routine without thinking. However, in my new driveway, I think before I reverse; I consider each turn. The change, the new street where I live, requires thinking. Driving to work from the new driveway requires practice. Until practice becomes automatic, the dragon waits in my driveway; she has not yet learned the new habit.

The human side of change is an approach to transitioning to a desired future state. According to an article in McKinsey Quarterly, 70 percent of all changes in all organizations fail. Failure is due to the inability of people to transition. I fail to give up my old way of driving to work; this is like wearing my heavy backpack while swimming. I misjudge the speed, slope, and flow of the river; I misjudged my ability to swim and carry luggage—I shoot past the river bank. If I can leave my backpack behind and if I can accept the river’s natural flow, I move with the river and reinvest myself on the other side. Each person’s, team’s, or organization’s path across the river may be unique, but the stages are consistent.

Is there a dragon in my driveway blocking my path?

According to William Bridges in Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (Addison-Wesley 1991), there are three stages of transition: ending, neutral zone, and new beginning. Understanding the three stages of transition is important for successfully managing the human side of change.

It is crucial when managing change that we are aware of these stages and that we use these stages when planning for the desired future state. Remember that resisting change is natural. Understanding the stages allows you to better plan for change. The ending stage is often resisted due to a loss of identity. The neutral zone is often resisted due to fear of the unknown. And the new beginning stage is often resisted due to the fear of failure. Our resistance is like trying to stop a wave. We can’t stop the wave, but we can learn to ride it.

William Bridges gives several recommendations on how to best manage these three stages:

Managing endings

  • Clarify what is and is not ending
  • Acknowledge that something is ending; that something is being lost
  • Paint the picture of the future
  • Give all the information people need to see the picture for themselves
  • Use ceremony or symbolism to honor the past
  • Understand and accept that some grieving is natural and often necessary

Leading in the Neutral Zone: Use the 4 P’s to Lead: Purpose, Picture, Plan, Part

  • Purpose: Be sure to have the supervisors and higher communicate the purpose
  • Picture: Paint the picture, show them places that are already doing it, encourage experimentation and training opportunities
  • Plan: Work with them to plan the change. Create short-term and long-term goals
  • Part: Focus on how this will impact them, what is their part to play; be sure to mentor and coach

Supporting New Beginnings

  • Fine tune the implementation plan
  • Clarify the changes
  • Provide opportunity to practice
  • Work collaboratively with others
  • Focus on a few quick successes
  • Build in responsiveness and flexibility

However, even if we plan for the three stages of change, there will be a decrease in productivity. In my new condo, I lose time getting to work, putting away my dishes, and cooking. I lose time because things are in different places. I have to think about how to get to work, where the spoons are kept, and where I put the spices. In the old condo, all these logistics were automatic. I knew exactly where they were and never took a moment to consider where to find what I needed. In the old condo, the dragon was in charge. The dragon managed my habits, and these were automatic. Until I can practice these tasks enough to make them habitual, I will be less productive.

productivity during transition

As the above diagram shows, we can expect a decrease in productivity until new behaviors are developed to the point of automation. Be sure to give yourself, other individuals, teams, and organizations time to practice and to get their automated responses working again. Feed the dragon by practicing until she is autonomous and automatic again. As one of my customers put it, “Truly, it seems that you have just mastered a system when progress comes along with the message ‘we can do this better’. Yikes!” Build on your users’ present mastery to ease the transition and lessen the ‘Yikes’ factor.

Let’s look at an IT example. Consider your last move from your old email system to the present email system. The change may have happened over the weekend but how long did the transition take? Did you or someone from your team manage for the desired future state? What would have been different if you had managed using the three stages of transitions? What expectations would be different for your users moving from the old email to the new email?

Now consider an IT initiative in the planning stage. How will you manage for the desired future state? Using the three stages of transitions, how will you help lead people across the river? How will you set expectations for your users for the new implementation? Use this table as a guide to managing transitions for the future state:


Managing Productivity Through Transitions

EndingNeutral Zone New Beginning

What are your users losing?

  • Clarify what is and what is not ending.
  • Acknowledge what is ending or being lost.
  • Review what from the old will carry to the new; familiarity is everything! 

Purpose: Do they understand the purpose and has someone in authority communicated the purpose?

  • Be sure to have the supervisors and higher communicate the purpose. 

Have you reviewed and improved the implementation plan with the users and the support team?

  • Fine tune the implementation plan.

What do you need them to leave behind?

  • Paint the picture of the future.
  • Give them all the information they need to picture the future for themselves?
  • Tell what is improving, will increase productivity,and/or build new skills.

Picture: Do they have a picture of the future?

  • Paint the picture, show them places that are already doing it, encourage
    experimentation and training opportunities. 

Have you verified that the message you are sending is clear and paints the same picture for all?

  • Clarify the changes.

How can you help them say good­bye to the old way?

  • Use ceremony and symbolism to honor the past.
  • Make available support access, training materials/manuals, trainings, and checklists. 

Plan: Did you have them participate in creating the plan for the implementation and transition?

  • Work with them to plan the change. Create short-term and long-term goals.
  • Is there a cheat­sheet, frequently asked questions, initial guide they can follow?
  • Is there a support team they can call if they get into trouble?
  • Describe the old habits that need to ‘let go’ and the new habits that need to be acquired. 

Have they had time to practice before they are asked to produce at the same level as before the change?

  • Provide opportunity to practice.
  • Focus on a few quick successes

What is the timeline for transitioning?

  • Understand and accept that some grieving is natural and often necessary.
  • State to users and their supervisors that initially there will be a decrease in productivity. 

Part: Do they know what their part is in the plan?

  • Focus on how this will impact them, what is their part to play; be sure to mentor and coach. 

Have you planned for collaboration between all involved in the implementation?

  • Work collaboratively with others from users, customers, support team, functional analysts, business analysts, technical analysts.
  • Build in responsiveness and flexibility.

Plan for implementing the change and managing the transition for your next IT roll­out. Remember:
  • End before you can begin
  • There is a gap between the ending and the beginning (sometimes known as a river)
  • The gap is often ambiguous and may be an opportunity for creativity
  • Transition is incremental
  • Transition is a chance for reinvention or renewal and reinvestment
  • Purpose, picture, plan, part are essential to guide through the transition
  • Once the transition has started, improve the process—create cheat sheets and checklists
  • People go through transitions at different speeds
  • There is some grieving
  • There is some loss of productivity
  • The new beginning is a new opportunity

When considering change, please consider your transition plan and factor in the time you need to cross that river. Being prepared for the human side of change will make the difference between success and failure.

Mary Therese Durr is the Director of Computing Support and Information Technology Service Management at Boston College. Mary entered the technology field more than twenty­five years ago as a computer programmer. She has moved from software development to computer lab management to networking to systems management and lastly to directing those who do all the real work. Her specialty is discovering people’s strengths. Mary has her Master's in Education, Research, Measurement, and Evaluation from Boston College Lynch School of Education. You can find Mary on Twitter at @undurrstood.

Tag(s): change management, leadership, performance management, people, productivity, supportworld


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