William Bridges – Managing Transitions

Just like John Stepper, I have been studying extensively change management lately and this is the first post of a serie on the topic. Reading the Managing Transition essay looked like a mandatory step in this process.

The version we will discuss here is the third edition (2009), the first one having been published in 1995. Overall there has been more than half a million copies sold. William Bridges has been ranked amongst the top 10 of independent executive consultants by the Wall Street Journal.

The author is a former literature professor, a detail which happens to be key to understand the profound humanist perspective he brings to change management. This is a quick (about 6-8 hours) excellent read, clear and actionable, with many quotes and some tests to benchmark your change initiative.

A strongly recommended essay for anyone involved in a transition project. Disclosure : this is more of a synthesis than an actual review – so if you’ve read the book already you may not find much value in reading further …

Change Vs Transition 

The key concept Bridges proposes is the one of Transition and he underlines the different natures of Change and Transition. In a nutshell, the Change is the What while Transition is all about the How. The author also proposes the following equation to clearly distinguishes the two concepts :  Change + Human Beings  = Transition

This different nature describes by William Bridges can also be summarized in the following table :



Nature Situational Psychological
Charactéristics Set of events Continuous Process
Time scale Fast Weeks, months
Speed Can be accelerated Organical Process, natural rhythm : the one of teams adaptation
Analysis The What The How
Visibility Visible and tangible Interiorised by people

3 phases of Transition

Transition is split in three phases, which overlap. Ending, Neutral Zone, and the New Beginning.

These 3 phases are not sequential and at one given time, the organisation may be in more than one phase. This depends on how advanced different teams are in the process of transition. Some may already starting the new beginning while others are in the Neutral Zone for instance.

It is not a problem for the organisation to be in a mix state in terms of transition phases just as long as leaders have a clear understanding of who is at what stage.


According to Bridges, if you want the change process to succeed, it is critical during the ending phase to understand and accept with empathy that teams will lose many things. The lost may be related to their usual work context, habits, environment, processes, colleagues, status, work title etc …

This is what Bridges calls the Letting Go. His position is that many change projects fail because organisations want to proceed fast and start directly with the new of day of doing thing. As long as people didn’t have the chance to express their loss and that management and leaders have not taken the  time to listen and accept it, people will bot be ready to start something new.

Bridges practical recommendations are the following :

  1. Identify what people will lose according to their role, team position etc …
  2. Understand what it means for the people et clearly communicate this understanding
  3. Identify ways to compensate for people loss
  4. Communicate on a regular basis. Not communicating enough is a guaranteed strategy to fail the change initiative. Note that during the times of changes, teams are more anxious and less receptive. As a result it is very important to repeat again and again the main principles of the change being carried out.
  5. Clearly communicate on what is over and why it is necessary for the organisation strategy
  6. Do not denigrate the previous situation. Rather, it is better to explain how the change  is a continuity of what has been done before.

Neutral Zone

This is the second phase of the Transition Process. Teams have expressed their lost and understood what was over. But the new way of doing things is not yet fully operational.

This is an uncomfortable time for the teams. Productivity might go down, people may feel overwhelmed and anxious. This requires a full attention by change agents as this is the phase during which people may get polarized. Former rancour, inherited from previous change initiatives, can bubble up and reappear.

Bridges summarised main risks with the GRASS acronym : Guilt, Resentment, Anxiety, self-absorption, Stress.

Neutral Zone also is an opportunity to challenge the Status Quo. As the process is not still fully operational, there are some rooms for improvement and suggestions. Leaders can take this opportunity to test new ideas and encourage innovation.

Recommendations during that phase  :

  • Normalized the zone : Openly communicate around the unstable nature of this phase during which the change is being implemented.
  • Build a Transition Monitoring Team. This team includes people from different teams, people who are not managers. The objective is twofold. First it is to ensure for an ascending communication reporting the real feeling of the team (not the one distorted by management) in order to identify risks and to monitor how teams feel about the change initiative. Second, while bringing people onto the project, it gives the opportunity for people to engage. This is not a management team (no operational responsibilities) but a monitoring team who just gather information on the operating fields
  • Encourage experimentation : let people submit ideas and propositions and try them.
  • Ensure failures are not punished. This would foster fear and defiance among the team and discourage any team involvement
  • Last but not least : train the teams so they can feel more comfortable with the change.


This is the last transition phase. Teams had the opportunity to do the Letting Go, they may somehow still struggling in the Neutral Zone and it is time to implement change.

Just as Change and Transition are different, so are Start (a fix point in time) and Beginning : a continuous process which involves the team.

In order to succeed with the beginning, Bridges recommends the 4 P : Purpose, Picture, Plan et Part.

  •  The Purpose is the answer to the question of the organisation justification. This is the Why in Simon Sinek famous book.
  • The Picture is critical to illustrate in a clear and straight-forward way the vision behind the change. It contributes to a much faster acceptation and change ownership process of by the teams.
  • The Plan shows that leaders have been thinking about the transition process. It provides the teams with visibility and makes management and team feel less anxious and uncomfortable with the change. It is not a great issue if the plan is not strictly followed but action still have to be aligned with it. Note : there is a big difference between a change plan and a transition plan. The former starts from the objective to be achieved and works backwards (retro-planning) to the current situation. On the other hand, a Transition plan starts from the current people cultural status and provide a step by step guide to bring people to the objective state.
  • The Part : involve as many people as possible to that they engage with the change process. This will help people feel active in the process rather than suffering yet another top down process imposed to them..

Communication must concentrate on selling the problem. Usually, in standard change initiatives, leaders spend 90% of their time selling the solution and only 10% selling the problem. Bridges reckons it should be the other way round. Leader should communicate, again and again and again around the problem. If people don’t share the same perception about the change initiative, it is very likely to fail as proposed solutions will be easily denigrated.

Bridges recommendation during that phase :

  • Be consistent. Sending conflicting messages during the Beginning phase is the best way to foster confusion and to stay in Neutral Zone. consistency not only implies communication but also (and most importantly) actions. Leaders and managers decisions and actions in the beginning phase speak much louder than words.
  • Look for quick wins : it is very important for the change initiative to get early in the project some quick wins, from small tasks. There are many advantages here. Teams can see encouraging results and this prevents believers from turning into sceptics. This is a recommendation we also find in John Kotter classic Leading Change.
  • Symbolize the new cultural identity. With methods, processes, visuals etc … that gives a physical and visible aspect to the change.
  • Celebrate success. Just like we need to spend time and acknowledge the loss (Endings) it is critical to celebrate results of what’s starting

Transition and Organisation developement

William Bridges sees 7 steps in the organisation life-cycle :

  1. Dream the dream
  2. Launch the Venture
  3. Getting Organised
  4. Making It
  5. Becoming an Institution
  6. Closing In
  7. Dying   

First 3 phases match organisation childhood. First phase is the one of the incubating start-up. The second one is the actual start-up where there is only one concern : the organisation survival. These are chaotic times where the lack of organisation is compensated by total dedication by the teams and many bottom-up initiatives. This often is refered to as the Golden Age, an age that the oldies cherish. The third step (Getting Organised) is important as this often is the one where the company fails, as it is not possible to scale processes and building standards which will ensure for company success in the next phase.

Phases 4 and 5 are the ones of the adult age. These are the times when the organisation makes money and creates value. The main difference between Making It and Institution is that in the latter, Emphasis moves from doing to being, from the results that the organisation achieves to the external impression that it makes.

This is a very subtle difference and Bridges makes a great job is spotting it and explaining so clearly.

Last two phases are the ones of the decline. The adventurous organisation of the golden age has morphed into a merry-go-round. Very few organisations succeed in renewing themselves  (a business imperative for CEOs according to Leo Apothecker [FR]) when they reach that stage. During these times, employees have forgotten about the customer and they focus on trivial internal issues such as rules or status all the while the organisation is drowning. 

Talking about the actual Organisation Development management trend, one so dear to my friend Jon Husband, Bridges is not impressed with the outcome :

“The Failure of the field of Organizational Development to deal with real “developmental” issues has left people confused about the larger significance of transition, which is that it is the transformative process by which an organization becomes more complex and better adpated to its environment.”

Transitions, life-cycle and leadership

Transitions are required between each of this phases of the organisation life-cycle. Problem with the employees is that the ones that are the most comfortable with one phase probably will be the most ferocious opponents to change.

The role of the leader is to clearly understand in at which stage his organisation is and lead accordingly the required transition. As John Kotter said in his famous What Leaders Really Do HBR article : Management is about coping with complexity while Leadership by contrast is about coping with change.


  1. Cecil …

    I understand your interpretation of Brydges’ perspective on OD. And, I find it useful to parse his words here carefully ..

    ““The Failure of the field of Organizational Development to deal with real “developmental” issues has left people confused about the larger significance of transition,”

    Let’s note that the focus of his conclusion is 1) set in the context of the meta issue of transition, and 2) that he is addressing as the subject “real “developmental” issues.

    I am guessing that Brydges;’ would at least partially agree that the web, hyperlinks and people increasingly working in one or several networks have made conditions such that the definitions of “developmental” in 1995 and in 2012 are arguably different. “Developmental” aka learning is becoming a touchstone of the networked world of work, non ?

    I’ve been arguing only (but strenuously) that OD principles can provide a good skeleton or framework for how to manage projects and people in networked conditions. I still believe this.

  2. Actually the more I think about it the more I think that the networked organisation also has another inherent value : its liquid nature makes it natural to deal with permanent changes.

    I would be interested in knowing what Bridges think of this. Still one issue though as Björn Negelmann showed at Milan this year, there is not so many companies that are fully networked today. So it might be difficult to get hard data on this issue.

  3. Reblogged this on jeffwittmer and commented:
    This is a huge deal in Life Coaching… understanding the difference between Change and Transitions. On a personal and on a corporate level… The Key: enjoy the journey!

  4. Reblogged this on life as i know it and commented:
    I’ve been enjoying this book, Managing Transitions by William Bridges and I am so impressed by the authors insights into behavior and work dynamics. Even after working with management consultants for many years, I don’t think I have ever encountered anyone with this kind of expertise and ability to foresee bumps in the road or indeed the end of the road. It is surprising to read a consultant with the bottom line in mind, aware of all the ways that human actions and reaction simply must be considered not as some pleasant afterthought but as an important factor affecting the success of the enterprise.

    I have also read a number of reviews of the book but I like this overview because it’s summed up so neatly. In particular it focuses on the application of these ideas in a work setting whereas many others focus on how they relate to personal issues and relationships. Since Bridges is speaking primarily from a management point of view – this essay seems most relevant.

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