To support my recent fascination with the art of organizational change, this week I read Managing Transitions by William Bridges. The book talks about how to take a company through a significant transition and provides a step-by-step guide to successfully shepherd employees through to a new organizational reality. A few of the steps include: announce the change, allow employees to mourn the loss of the old org, embrace the “neutral zone” that occurs when you’ve left the old org and haven’t yet reached the new org, create a “transition plan,” and set up a “transition team.”
One of my favorite parts of the book is the focus on employee identity. Bridges recognizes that a job is more than just something you get paid to do; it’s part of your identity. During an organizational change, it’s not just the company that has to change, but also each of the employees has to embrace their new identity within the new organization. To help employees change, Bridges focuses quite heavily on the “neutral zone” period in between the old org and the new org.
The analogy that Bridges uses throughout is that of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt. Wandering in the desert (the “neutral zone”) the Jews were able to forget their old identities as slaves and embrace their new identities as free citizens of Israel.
However, Bridges’ relentless focus on the neutral zone is both his strength and weakness. I agree that employees need time to change, and it’s important to manage that change carefully, but how long do leaders have to hang out in the neutral zone?
The analogy of Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt is memorable, but I would argue that, by modern standards, Moses actually did a rather poor job heralding change. The walk from Egypt to Israel is only 230 miles. At an average walking pace of 3 miles per hour, the whole trip should only have taken 76 hours. Moses, however, took 40 years to complete the journey and that’s even with taking a short cut through the Red Sea. The reason that Moses took so long to reach Israel is because he wanted to help his people leave their old identities as slaves so they could be prepared to build a new nation. The method he chose was effective, but it certainly wasn’t the quickest path to change. Can you imagine if a modern leader created a transition plan that took 40 years to complete due to extra time built in for the current employees to grow old and die, so new employees could be hired in their place?
An area where Brides severely under-invests is how to successfully complete an organizational change. In order to leave the neutral zone, leaders need to consistently reinforce what the new org looks like so everyone in the company can fully embrace the new reality. Bridges assumes that the completion of a transition is a foregone conclusion, which may be true in the case of a massive layoff or factory closure, but not all transitions end by themselves. For more structural org changes, leaders need to provide a clear vision of the new org to serve as a north star to guide the company through the neutral zone and into the promised land of the post transition org. Without a clearly and consistently communicated north star, the company will be left to wander the desert – stuck between the old org and the new.