How to manage change and transition

Written by
Changeboard Team

24 Mar 2011

24 Mar 2011 • by Changeboard Team

People are not averse to change

The frequency and amplitude of change is increasing. As such, those organisations that are adaptable and can manage change will survive and prosper. However, many approaches to managing change, especially cultural change, rest on profound misunderstandings of people and their capability to adapt.
Contrary to popular belief, people are not averse to change. However, without the right conditions being present the tendency is towards stasis and the status quo. Before any major organisational change programme is attempted it is recommended that change agents fully appreciate individual transitions. This article provides a framework with which personal change and transition can be understood and managed.

Change and transitions

We all experience transitions in our lives. These are times when we move into significantly new and different situations that we have not previously experienced. These include moves from school to college or into an organisation. They include marriage and the starting of a family. They can also encompass divorce or the loss of a loved one. In a work context they include such periods as taking on a first supervisory position, moving from an operational role into a strategic one or becoming part of a newly merged entity.

On the whole, transitions are positive but often can also be turbulent times in our development. We have to learn to leave behind some of the approaches with which we have been most comfortable and reach out towards new ways of thinking about the world.

Transitions can be likened to paddling across an unexplored and wide river. One has to leave behind the known and familiar place before the destination can come into focus.  But if the water becomes choppy, it is easy to think about turning back and to keep with the tried and tested.

Transitions do not occur overnight, they can take quite some time depending on the nature of the change before one feels comfortable with a new way of working. The ease with which transitions occur can be influenced by the work context and the ability to test our new waters in a safe and protected way.

There are plenty of self-help books around that provide step-by-step guides for handling the choppy waters of change. Many of these provide rich insights but often lack a coherent framework that helps to explain work-place transitions.

Work levels

Work levels is a management methodology used by some of the world’s leading organisations. The underlying framework enables us to appreciate the human factors in change and transition.

The essence of work levels is that all work can be allocated to one of a specified number of levels of work - each with its own theme, purpose and core contribution. Core contribution describes the outputs of the job and the value of these to the organisation is in direct proportion to the complexity of the environment in which decisions have to be made.

Based on the integrated framework, a direct 'mirror-image' connection is made between the outputs of work and the inputs - the personal capabilities required to achieve these. At each successive level the capability to get one's head around the scale of the challenge needs to change profoundly. Making this connection provides a dynamic link between people and jobs and this enable insight into the process of handling transitions.

Transitions and mental models

All human beings construct ‘mental-models’ of how the world works or should work. Periods of significant change demand that we alter the prevailing model, gain a new perspective on the world, reach out for understanding, discern patterns and then make sensible judgements in the light of the new model.

In the face of uncertainty, people make judgements even if these are only tentative and temporary ones. Making judgements means that we use our mental-model of an expected universe so that we can make a prediction. For everyone, the sophistication of the mental-model has to be at least in-line with the degree of complexity that is faced in the work undertaken. If this is not the case, poor decisions result and people become uncomfortable as they recognise that, somehow, the world does not operate to the rules of the mental model.

In flow

Our mental models and the associated breadth and depth of perspective set the conditions for feeling in-tune with the work undertaken. To use the phrase first coined by Csíkszentmihályi, people are likely to feel ‘in flow’ when the challenge of the job is matched by their ability to get their head around it. Without a relevant mental model in use, a person will feel uncomfortable and out of their depth. This sense of being out-of-flow has important consequences.

The work levels framework adds to this understanding as it details the major transitions possible in a working life. These range from commencing employment and undertaking routine jobs to moving into a top job in one of the world’s largest or most influential organisations.

Each level in the framework represents a step-change in the complexity of the decision-making environment. Handling a step change in complexity is a major transition and knowing when someone is ready for this is key to managing risk.

Making sense of change

Work levels is a set of ideas that enables practitioners to appreciate the perspective and mental models that people bring to the world of work. Work levels based assessment methods provide insight into an individual’s thinking skills that enable them to make sense of their situation.

As a result work levels can help organisations to:

  • Improve the quality of the thinking relevant to the type of work being undertaken
  • Prepare those in or approaching transition into work requiring different ways of thinking
  • Introduce relevant change processes that take into account human factors
  • Manage risk and ensure that people are capable of stepping up to bigger, more complex roles

References and acknowledgements

In his seminal work, 'Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience', Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are most happy when they are in a state of flow — a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation where the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterised by a feeling of great freedom, enjoyment, fulfillment and skill.

Dynamic Link also acknowledges the important influence of Elliott Jaques and Gillian Stamp.