Transition tales

We’ve all been there – mergers, amalgamations, restructures.

Funding cuts, funding restored.

Joint ventures and partnerships that suddenly go sour. Each time an eruption like this occurs, a psychological transition of some kind is invoked.

When it comes to organisational transitions, things can get messy; moreover, complex feelings are aroused.

As unsettling as the transition often is, it’s also ripe for personal growth and organisational creativity.

But it all comes with a catch.

Transition phases

Social theorist Kurt Lewin called it the ‘unfreezing’. When structures and habits thaw, energy rushes in. This hazy point between unfreezing and refreezing is like gold. It’s when everything and anything seems possible. Hierarchies can tremble; what was previously adamantine can slowly soften.

But what’s the catch? Lewin doesn’t really go there. William Bridges has the best insights here. His transition model is deceptively simple. There is an ending. There is a period of turmoil, uncertainty and creative possibility he calls the ‘neutral zone’. And, finally, there is a ‘new beginning’, a palpable sense that people want to move on and build whatever it is that needs building. Like most things to do with human psychology, however, the transition path is rarely linear. It would be so much easier for project planners and transition managers if it was.


Acknowledge losses

The ending needs to be acknowledged. There is a loss; it can be big for some, and not as deeply felt for others. But something is changing; things will never be the same again. Of course, the reasons for the change affect the tone, depth and duration of the ending. If a merger or restructure involves imminent job losses then the ending is imbued with a greater emotional valency. It can be tense, scary and sad. If, on the other hand, it involves the prospect of something new or better, like a new building or opportunities to expand services, then there is something to look forward to. Nevertheless, an ending still occurs and it needs to be acknowledged.

It is puzzling to us (at Project Sisu) that a conscious approach to navigating the psychological transition is so rarely adopted. It’s not that hard to allow people facing transition an opportunity to be in the present, acknowledge losses, and be allowed space to experiment with new ideas while the new organisational identity is being forged. Yet, many change management strategies skip this important phase by speaking relentlessly of a distant future state that elides the lived present of the people destined to bring it about. There is often an unseemly rush to solutions, to the appearance of control, to complicated Gantt charts and spreadsheets.

How organisations deal with the ‘ending’ can prefigure the success or otherwise of the change process itself.


Transitional objects

Maybe it has to do with a misplaced belief that ‘feelings’ are somehow always chaotic. Things will fall into a heap if losses are openly expressed. Our experience of working with people during transition is the opposite. If anything, an open but contained expression of loss can hasten the transition not thwart it.

Take this recent example. We worked with library, customer services and development application staff at Bayside Council before they were about to share the same space for the first time in the new Rockdale Library. One day we all traipsed through the new library building in hard hats when it was nearing completion but still an active construction zone. Afterwards, we retired to a seminar room to draw our feelings and reactions to the prospect of being in the new shared space. All the drawings were fantastic, but one stood out. It was of a teddy bear with bandaids plastered all over it. The woman who drew it described it thus: “It’s a bit like us right now. We know we can survive but we’re a bit bruised and battered.” Well, we all get what a teddy bear signifies. Teddy bears are the ultimate ‘transitional object’, as the British psychoanalyst DW Winnicott once called it. Teddy bears help us with separation and change; originally from our mothers, and, in this case, from a state we thought was relatively stable to one that requires us to let go of something in order to gain something else. When the drawing was revealed, everyone knew what the teddy bear stood for. It stood for ‘us’ and our ability to weather the storm, because Teddy usually survives the rough treatment we dish out, the neglect and displaced anger, our infantile craving for comfort and reassurance.

Sitting in a room for an hour drawing teddy bears? How can that be productive when there is SO much to get done. Well, counterintuitive as it may sound, it just is. It’s hugely productive. And free-form drawing is just one technique that can assist people in tackling the transition.


Techniques for tackling transitions

Of course, organisations are not democracies and we don’t always get a say in what happens.

But transitions can be used to affirm our collective humanity and build resilience in times of uncertainty and change.

We can do this by:

  • creating space for an ‘ending’ to occur. For example, a simple exercise is to ask people to select something, material or metaphoric, that symbolises what’s ending for them. This works best when the ending is current not long passed;
  • using the ‘neutral zone’ to experiment with new ways to talk to customers and clients, reimagine services, fix and repair processes that are irritating and inefficient. User design principles and practices are useful here, particularly opportunities to talk to users/customers in non-transactional ways;
  • invite participation in shaping the story of the new organisation/entity by giving people a role to play, a voice, a creative entry point. It’s amazing how fresh and original people can be when given the latitude to work together to solve shared problems;
  • celebrate milestones. It’s hard enough coping with the neural rewiring needed to break old habits and adopt new ways of working, let alone never staying still for long enough to reflect on how far you have come.

Project partners

Project Sisu has partnered with the State Library of NSW to offer Tackling Transitions to NSW public library staff involved in council amalgamations and major change processes (2016). We worked with Bayside Council (NSW) on the organisational transition involved in the opening of the Rockdale Library (2016) and the Eastgardens Library (2017).



Bridges, W (1995) Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, Nicholas Brearly, London

Cummings, S., Bridgman, T. and Brown, K. (2016) ‘Unfreezing change as three steps: Rethinking Kurt Lewin’s legacy for change management’, Human Relations Vol 69 (1) 33-60, Sage.

Phillips, A (1988) Winnicott, Fontana Press, London