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Managing transitions: Making the most of change

Book cover

by William Bridges, Nicholas Brealey, 2002

A copy of this book can be ordered online via the Ashridge e-bookshop.


Every change in organisations is accompanied by psychological transitions, which are experienced by the employees affected. There are three phases to a transition: letting go; an interim neutral period when adjustment is called for and needs to be worked at; a new beginning. Each calls for careful handling, both by the individual, not to become a victim of change and the leaders who must aim to guide people through the process. Transitions are particularly evident when an organisation is moving from one phase in its life cycle to the next. Each calls for different handling, especially as today when change is continuous and several transitions may be experienced simultaneously.

(Reviewed by Edgar Wille in April 2007)

(These book reviews offer a commentary on some aspects of the contribution the authors are making to management thinking. Neither Ashridge nor the reviewers necessarily agree with the authors’ views and the authors of the books are not responsible for any errors that may have crept in.

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Managing transitions as well as changes

This is the second, expanded, edition of the classic by William Bridges, about the way in which organisations can smooth the path of their reorganisations, mergers, leadership changes, culture shifts and changes in strategy. His basic concern is to begin the process of overcoming people’s resistance to change by addressing the threat posed to their familiar world. Successful change depends on getting people to stop doing things the old way and then begin doing things a new way.

Bridges makes a distinction between change and transition. Change is what happens when you introduce something new; it might be moving to new site, a staff reorganisation, a product change, a downsizing, revising the pension plan. Such changes bring about a new situation, which often means that people are being taken out of their comfort zone and feel lost, or worried, or bewildered. When the forthcoming change is announced the familiar anchors of their lives are under threat. They then experience a transition period while they adjust or fail to adjust to what is going to happen. The transition is not the change itself; it is the human response to the emerging change. It is psychological. It is what goes on their minds as events unfold or rumours about them abound.

The change won’t happen as planned unless you can get people through this transition period. Even if you get compliance, you won’t get people putting their hearts into making the change succeed.

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The three phases of transitions

On the basis of his experience of helping companies deal with change, Bridges identifies three phases people have to go through in this transition, in responding inwardly (and therefore, most likely, in outward action) to changes which are happening. The three phases are:

  • Letting go: ending the old way, losing it, saying goodbye to it, no longer clinging in their hearts to it. It is a time of ENDING.
  • The neutral zone: the in-between time where the old has gone or is going, but the new is not fully operational – a time for adjusting, re-patterning, personal re-alignment; it can be a very confusing time where things which were clear and dependable are no longer so.
  • The new beginning: people begin to feel at home with new ways; they gain a new identity and a new sense of purpose to make the new things work.

This transition period is a time of unplugging from an old world and plugging into the new. Bridges describes the process of transition as beginning with an ending and ending with a beginning.

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Letting go

Initially most people feel a sense of loss as old landmarks are disappearing, however much the leaders of the company may have explained the need for change in a rational manner. It may be they loved the place they worked in and now they have to move; or they enjoyed the camaraderie of the people they worked with, but now they are working with people they hardly know, or they are missing an activity they loved doing and did well and now have to learn new and unfamiliar ways of doing things. The world they knew and were comfortable with is ending and it isn’t a pleasant experience. So many little things are affected by the big change and they are missed as you would miss an old friend. The change itself, from a business point of view is judged by outcomes, but from a personal point of view is more often judged by feelings not unlike a bereavement.

“Transition starts with an ending”. Bridges’ phrase can be understood by thinking of changes in our own lives, moving home, the arrival of a baby, getting promoted to a management job. We lost aspects of our lives and sometimes it takes a long while to see the joys and forget the disruption. Only in business we haven’t got a long time.

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The neutral zone

The second step after this ending of the old and the beginning of the new is “the neutral zone” as he calls it. Here you are in a kind of no-man’s land – in limbo – belonging properly nowhere; the old has gone, but the new way is not comfortable. As Bridges puts it: “It was a kind of emotional wilderness, a time when it wasn’t quite clear who you were or what was real”. This period needs lingering over, so that creative thought can take place and people can “develop into what they need to become”. This is the period when we begin to form new habits of thought and action and we begin to adapt to the new world we are entering. “It is the night during which we are disengaging from yesterday’s concerns and preparing for tomorrow’s.” And then we are ready for the new beginning.

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Bridges makes it clear that the process is not as cut and dried as it might sound. The stages overlap in the individual and there will be movement back as well as forward; they also overlap collectively and different people or groups will be at different stages at the same time. Many organisations pay little attention to the personal transition element of change and then wonder why change often fails to deliver the expected outcomes.

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Options for action

After setting out his stall, Bridges illustrates the theme with a case of a company where nothing in a change went according to plan and chaos was let loose. He lists 28 options for action to deal with the disaster and then classifies them under five headings:

  1. Very important. Do this at once.
  2. Worth doing but takes more time. Start planning it.
  3. Yes and no. Depends how it is done.
  4. Not very important. May even be a waste of effort.
  5. No! Don’t do this.

To get over the flavour I give below a sample of what is placed under these headings in the test case:

Under 1, he includes actions like the need to figure out individual behaviour and attitudes and how they will have to change to make the teams work. Also analyse who stands to lose something under the new system. Seven actions in this category.

Under 2, for example, he places the need to redo the compensation system to reward working with the change and to change the seating arrangements to abolish separate cubicles. Then there are another five actions.

Under 3, he places giving a powerful talk about the benefits of team work, appointing a change manager and four other similar actions

Under 4, he recommends that two actions are not very important, such as a carefully written memo or a copy of the organisation chart for everyone

Under 5, he says don’t hand over the whole thing to individual contributors and ask them to come up with a plan to move to team working. Four other actions not to be entertained include scrapping the whole change and using threats.

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Helping people to let go

There then follows guidance on how to achieve the letting go, how to fill the neutral zone productively and how to make sure the new beginning really is a new beginning.

In beginning something new, you are ending what used to be. For the individual it may mean different patterns of loyalty, different career paths, different procedures, even moving to a new locality. People will feel that their identities are in the melting pot. It is these personal consequences that they are resisting, rather than the changes themselves. Helping people to let go starts at the planning stage when as much information as is practical should be shared, so that there is as little shock as possible. Many of the losses are not concrete and therefore the manager or leader has to take an empathetic approach. Imagination is needed to answer the question “what would I be feeling if I were in their shoes.?”. Are there any factors which everyone will have to let go?

These subjective losses are as significant to people as the more overt ones. And if they are not tackled openly with understanding they will grow in magnitude and you will lose people you need or have half hearted staff. The manager should not be surprised that a grieving process will begin and signs of this need to be accepted and worked with seriously. People must not be made to feel foolish, disloyal or ineffective because they grieve, any more than we do when someone loses a loved one. Patience will be needed as employees show signs of anger, anxiety, sadness, disorientation or depression.

A positive approach will be to look for something to give back to them in part balance for the unhappiness. If they feel that a skill that was once valued is no longer needed, find or create something which over time will create a sense of achievement in them; give them that they feel they can control; avoid any feeling they have become ciphers.

Be generous in giving information. Don’t assume that people have taken it in the first time; so repeat it in different ways. Don’t rely on mere announcements or just telling supervisors. Make sure that they don’t think it’s the end of the world. Make it clear what will survive and still be needed and place emphasis on such things. Be specific about what goes and what stays. And if it is feasible celebrate the end of something that is going, recognising its erstwhile value and showing how what made it valuable is still needed in the new arrangements. What really matters will continue.

This foreseeing and softening the blows still has to happen in a relatively short time. It can’t go on for ever; so the skill will be to match understanding with not dragging out the letting go process. The key thought is that dealing with these subjective implications of change deserves as much attention as the change itself.

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Leading people through the neutral zone

This is the period when neither the old or the new are working satisfactorily, when people can feel immobilised, as one writer put it you feel you have let go of the trapeze and are waiting for the new one to appear. The trouble is that in many change situations the neutral period can last a long time, until everything is running smoothly when people may even begin to wonder why they ever liked the old way. It is made more difficult if bosses try to hustle everybody for quicker implementation, before all the bugs have been dealt with.

Yet this period can be a very fruitful time when there is a call on people’s creativity to iron out problems and earn some kudos. But the old clarities aren’t there and life will often seem chaotic; motivation may fall and absenteeism increase. Leadership skills are needed to represent this period as an exciting part of change, a time of opportunity to produce the answers and to innovate, whether by patching or by brilliant suggestions. A participative management style will use the time to encourage ideas, suggestions and bold actions, to engender the team spirit and to recognise everyone’s contributions. Experimentation will be encouraged, brainstorming will be frequent and be seen to lead somewhere. And when setbacks occur, ways of using them to good effect may be found so as to offset their naturally discouraging tendency. Say orders fall during this in-between time; then have fun painting the factory or redesigning the processes.

The negative aspects of the neutral zone will exist; so its temporary nature must be ensured and made clear, though not to convey the impression that it will all be over very quickly. If you know the Biblical story of Israel in the wilderness under Moses, the use Bridges makes of it will interest you. The letting go – the exodus from Egypt went pretty well, they had got out of Egypt, but then it took 40 years in the wilderness to get Egypt out of them!

There are practical steps that can be taken to make the interim period more bearable. The enterprising team will find ways to cope with difficulties by temporary systems that can plug gaps until the delaying factor is more permanently dealt with. Treat rules with as much flexibility as possible, so that people don’t feel imprisoned in what may seem to them as impractical impositions. Sit loosely on hierarchy whenever possible and build up a new esprit de corps in the new teams. Even lay on an event or outing to give people the opportunity to mix more. One company published a newsletter called Transition News, complete with letters to the editor.

It is absolutely essential in this period to show no special favours, but rather enable everyone to feel “we’re all in this together”. The setting up of a “Transition Monitoring Team” (TMT) is recommended, not to make policy or act in an executive way, but to keep an eye on progress so that problems can be spotted early and to provide a mechanism where people can make their input in a safe and constructive way. It can also counter rumours that are being heard on the grapevine. It has to be clear that it is not a decision-making body and it is not managing the transition. A useful checklist is given for this interim period, containing 21 suggestions compared with 13 suggestions in the “letting go” checklist and 15 in the “new beginning” checklist.

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Launching the new beginning

Beginnings are not to be confused with starts. Starts are events which appear on a schedule and have deadlines attached to them. Beginnings involve new understandings, new values, new attitudes and new identities. Starts should be carefully designed like any object. Beginnings need to be nurtured like a plant, says Bridges. Starts relate to overt actions. Beginnings relate to what goes on in hearts and minds.

Beginnings happen when people have come through the wilderness and are ready to make the emotional commitment to new activities and see themselves as new people. If the neutral period was in a sense enjoyable, then new beginnings are associated with being in it for real; some of the fun may seem to have gone out of work, now that life has stabilised. Real leadership is needed so that people feel that chaos must be left behind and the real thing embraced. Good clear planning will help, so that people feel they know where they stand. Something has at last ended, we are in the new world – one that has to work and achieve objectives such as make profit, gain new customers and others which must similarly go beyond the repetition of clichés.

Painting a picture in words and keeping it visible “on the wall” is important in this Beginnings period. The seeds will have been sown in the neutral zone. But this is not a substitute for planning, rather a support and psychological boost. And the kind of planning in this third transition stage relates not to things like the schedules for new machinery to arrive or new duties to be started, but to feelings and attitudes, which can be affected by the timing and clarity of information on how life will actually proceed beyond dry figures relating to measured outcomes. Above all the plan for Beginnings must ensure that everyone has a part to play and are trusted associates with a voice and a hand in turning vision into reality.

Some quick successes to celebrate, help people to feel that the new beginning has begun. Symbols can also help the formation of the new identity, as long as they are not too kitsch.

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A new organisational life cycle

We are probably all familiar with the concept of organisational life cycles. Greiner’s one moves from the entrepreneurial days when everything was unplanned and exciting, to the bringing of order with growth, and then hierarchy, followed by a looser participative style and so on. Bridges has his own version based on the theme he has been pursuing.

He has seven stages of organisation life:

  • Dreaming the dream
  • Launching the venture
  • Getting organised
  • Making it!
  • Becoming an institution
  • Closing in
  • Dying.

The last two are not inevitable. Before they can happen there can be renewal – which would no doubt involve change and all the situations Bridges has been discussing. In fact transitions can be defined as the “dynamic interludes between one of the seven stages of organisational life and the next”.

Dreaming the dream is the stage when the organisation is little more then an idea in the heads of the founders, when a lot of time is spent brainstorming, experimenting and arguing, testing ideas and ways of funding them.

From this womb is born a venture – not yet fully successful, but improvising in response to opportunities and managed by “the seat of the pants”, making it up as they go along. Some ventures may actually take off as this stage develops.

Getting organised loses some of the freshness of earlier stages; things have to slow down a bit to allow some bringing of order out of previous chaos. The frantic efforts of the few are replaced by the more predictable efforts of the many. Financial controls are introduced; employment policies are devised, formal publications replace fundraising missives. This phase ends with new structures, practices, systems, agreements and habits in place. The organisation has grown up.

The fourth stage is the advent of adulthood. It begins to reap the rewards of the earlier stages. It has a solid foothold in its market and is at least holding its own against competition which may emerge. Some organisations remain in this stage for a long while. However, eventually many of them feel the need to upgrade their standing to be a “proper” organisation with a prestigious headquarters building and other appurtenances.

So the organisation becomes an institution. It just has a reputation; it is no longer being earned; internally it has a sense of significance, beyond the ordinary company. It may continue thus for a long while or it may become complacent and believe in its own immortality, without taking steps to maintain it. If it doesn’t, at this stage, take steps to renew itself, as IBM did, it will close in on itself and lose its vital connection with the world.

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If steps for renewal are not taken, the self satisfaction may lead to unresponsiveness to potential markets or excessive self-sustaining bureaucracies. Its past, its store of assets or its current monopoly position may endow it with immunity to immediate disaster, but the seeds of decay are there and the natural outcome follows. Form may be replacing function.

Renewal means trying to rediscover some of the organisation’s youthful vigour, which may be quite disconcerting to those who have grown comfortable in the apparent stability of the institution. Renewal, in fact, may be a matter of beginning what, in effect, is a new organisation with new objectives, products and processes.

That more natural outcome of the “Institution” stage is closing in and dying by takeover or bankruptcy. But it may die in bits and pieces as different parts are sold off. It will often be difficult to say when the organisation died, there may be bursts of energy but darkness overtakes them in the end, unless renewal means new start-ups rising from the threats of decay to which we have referred.

Each of these stages grows out of changes that happen, even semi-consciously, or are initiated purposefully. Each of them will mean that people affected go through transition experiences, from ending of the old to the beginning of the new.

I have recently supervised the MBA dissertation work of a top manager of a small Czech energy-saving consultancy. The reputation and demand for the skills of the company were growing fast and the student was searching for ways of maintaining the spirit of the first pioneer stage and holding on to and attracting people who wanted to work in the innovative, participative and flexible camaraderie which had given the company its early success. He found that some of the standard motivation theories, which didn’t place relationships high in their priorities, did not measure up to the needs of his company. He was trying to manage the transition.

He may well succeed, but anyone trying to do the same for the fifth – institution – stage has a more difficult task, because the organisation has hardened and is less susceptible to remoulding and the individuals in it feel they have more to lose as their comfort zones disappear. The end of any of the stages may not be precise and immediately recognisable, but be a matter of a growing awareness that things are not what they used to be, a new shape is emerging and later on, with hindsight you may be able to pinpoint more specifically how the change happened and see more clearly the meaning in the psychological discomforts you experienced.

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Ongoing change

It has become a cliché to say that ours is an age where change is the only constant. It never ends. This may be bemoaned as creating ambiguity, so that we never know where we are, or it may be welcomed as the heart of life, which means when we have stopped developing, individually or collectively, then death is round the corner.

Bridges recognises that the ongoing and never ending nature of change means that to some extent he has been oversimplifying his theme, by making the stages of transition more discrete than they are. There may be a number of them going on at the same time, which makes them more difficult to think of and react to as specific transitions. Nevertheless, to conceptualise them in the way he has offered helps one to identify and handle discomfort; vague unhappiness can be nailed and dealt with, even if there is another change coming next week. And where there is a multitude of changes going on, different people will be in different stages of transition and what is transition for one person may not be for another.

Very often there is a common thread between these apparently different changes. The leader needs to be able to recognise and link them, just as the conductor of a symphony orchestra needs to be able to keep track simultaneously of a multitude of changing melodies, harmonies and rhythms. The manager as leader needs to perceive the overall design, where he may, for example, have to save money, meet the competition, take account of public opinion and decentralise the organisation – all at the same time!

Perhaps, suggests Bridges, one should try to engineer a transition in people’s thinking which comes to see change as the norm. (Sir John Harvey Jones once said that the purpose of a business was to develop the maximum amount of change that people could sustain.) A number of suggestions are made such as trying to help people to see their own activities as part of the whole and to know that their efforts are indispensable to the success of the whole organisation. (Like the labourer who was wheeling bricks, who when asked what he was doing, replied that he was building a cathedral.) One element in this holistic is to distinguish between the overall purpose of an organisation and specific objectives and actions to fulfil this purpose. (So Baldwin’s - a company that built the majority of the steam locomotives in the world market – failed, because it didn’t see its purpose as providing locomotives or a means of locomotion. Other companies developed diesel locomotives and spelt the doom of Baldwin’s.)

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Leadership requires the ability to clarify purpose and build trust by its openness, to share awareness of problems rather than just impose solutions with people who don’t understand the problem. They must engender a sense of excitement about meeting challenges. As boats have to be “seaworthy”, so companies have to become “transition-worthy”.

All these ideas are put to the test in a case study which invites readers to categorise the possible actions required in a company facing drastic change challenges. The five categories are those expressed above under the heading “Options for action”.

In a concluding chapter there is reference to the need to care for those who survive a crisis and come through the transition period, apparently intact. They may have been marked for life, unless their needs are taken seriously. Increasingly, as change is so ubiquitous, we may all be survivors of one change crisis or another and all will have experienced transitions. If these transitions are not managed effectively then there will be residual effects, such as guilt, resentment, anxiety, self absorption, stress. Bridges gives these factors the acronym GRASS.

A workforce, exhausted and demoralised by the continuance of these emotions, will not successfully cope with the inevitable further changes. Dealing with this situation must be high on the leader/manager’s agenda. Five appendices may help him or her in doing this and also help those experiencing transition to avoid becoming transition victims. The appendices cover: assessing your transition readiness; planning for transition; setting up a transition monitoring team; career advice to those in transition situations; the leader’s role in times of transition.

And although one change so quickly follows the current one, the leader must not then move on without reflecting on the one now ending with a new beginning. Stocktaking is essential so as to be able to deal better with the transitions created by the next change. Transition is not an occasional state of affairs. It is the way things are today.

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