Managing Transitions (25th anniversary edition)

Making the Most of Change


By William Bridges

By Susan Bridges

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The business world is constantly transforming. When restructures, mergers, bankruptcies, and layoffs hit the workplace, employees and managers naturally find the resulting situational shifts to be challenging. But the psychological transitions that accompany them are even more stressful. Organizational transitions affect people; it is always people, rather than a company, who have to embrace a new situation and carry out the corresponding change.

As veteran business consultant William Bridges explains, transition is successful when employees have a purpose, a plan, and a part to play. This indispensable guide is now updated to reflect the challenges of today’s ever-changing, always-on, and globally connected workplaces. Directed at managers on all rungs of the corporate ladder, this expanded edition of the classic bestseller provides practical, step-by-step strategies for minimizing disruptions and navigating uncertain times.



The Problem



               The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.

                     —CHINESE PROVERB

               It is a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there.


It Isn’t the Changes That Do You In

It isn’t the changes that will do you in; it’s the transitions. They aren’t the same thing. Change is situational: the move to a new site, a new CEO replaces the founder, the reorganization of the roles on the team, and new technology. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological; it is a three-phase process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the details of the new situation that the change brings about.

Even though you probably won’t find it in the change document, transition isn’t an optional “if-you-get-around-to-it” add-on to the change; it’s not icing on the cake that can be forgotten until things ease up and you’ve finished with the important stuff. Getting people through the transition is essential if the change is actually to work as planned. When a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of the chairs. It’s what people mean when they say, “Just because everything has changed, doesn’t mean anything is different around here.” It is what has gone wrong when some highly touted change ends up costing a lot of money and producing disappointing results. But as important as going through transition is to getting the results that organizations are seeking, they lack a language for talking about it.

Here’s an example. Benetton, the big, Italian clothing firm, came up with a promising-sounding diversification plan.1 It decided to buy some top-notch sporting goods companies—Nordica ski boots, Kastle (later Nordica) skis, Rollerblade in-line skates, Prince tennis rackets, and Killer Loop snowboards—with the idea that buyers of those brands could also be sold cross-marketed workout and after-workout clothing made by Benetton.

It sounded like an interesting idea, and Benetton spent almost $1 billion buying the companies. It went about things, as big companies often do—by imagining that everyone would be delighted to become part of a super-successful international brand. It folded the companies into its new parent, seeking the kinds of synergies and economies of scale that are always featured in stories about acquisitions. It began by combining the sales forces and marketing groups and tightened the bonds by moving the units in question to the site of the new Benetton Sportsystem division in Bordentown, New Jersey.

The trouble was that, in the words of the man who subsequently tried to save the acquisitions after things had headed south, “The people who are in these businesses are often in them because they love that activity. . . . If you sap that, you have nothing—internally or competitively.” At Rollerblade, for example, employees spent their lunch hours skating through Minneapolis’ lovely lakeside parks and playing roller hockey outside the headquarters building. Benetton hadn’t thought through the implications of that fact—or of the impact of terminating a large percentage of the employees, three-quarters of them at Rollerblade.

The man trying to save the acquisitions got the twenty-one survivors to move to New Jersey but only by giving many of them raises, promotions, and a promise that if they wanted to return to Minnesota within a year of the move, they’d be moved back at no charge and receive severance packages of up to two years. When they got to New Jersey, many of them found that they were reporting to (former) Nordica reps. (That was better than what happened to the tennis racket crew from Prince, who were all fired.) The bottom line—that mythic measure that justifies anything—was that during the year when all this happened, Benetton went from making a U.S. profit of $5 million to posting a loss of $31 million. Incidentally, twenty out of the twenty-one Rollerbladers took the company up on its offer and moved back to Minnesota.

Not all mismanaged transitions turn out so badly, but this one contains just about all the elements. Managing transition involves not just whopping financial deals but the simple process of helping people through three phases:

Figure 1.1 The three phases of transition.

       1. Letting go of the old ways and the old identity people had. This first phase of transition is an ending and the time when you need to help people to deal with their losses.

       2. Going through an in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. We call this time the “neutral zone”: it’s when the critical psychological realignments and repatternings take place.

       3. Coming out of the transition and making a new beginning. This is when people develop the new identity, experience the new energy, and discover the new sense of purpose that makes the change begin to work.

Because transition is a process by which people unplug from an old world and plug into a new world, we can say that transition begins with an ending and finishes with a beginning.

In its disastrous sortie into sporting goods, Benetton managed the change—combining staffs and moving them—and forgot the transition. They had a difficult ending, which the planners of the change didn’t even acknowledge. The employees incurred huge psychological losses (a favored location, a corporate identity tied to an activity they loved, the esprit de corps that comes from shared interests, and involvement in a cutting-edge activity), and the company treated those losses as just another cash deal. The company neither offered nor acknowledged the need for any support during the difficult neutral zone, and its notion of help in making a new beginning was new titles and higher performance targets.

Changes of any sort—even though they may be justified in economic or technological terms—finally succeed or fail based on whether the people affected do things differently. Do the employees let go of the old way of doing things, go through that difficult time between the old way and the new, and come out doing things the new way? If companies don’t help employees through these three phases, even the most wonderful training programs often fall flat. The leaders forget endings and neutral zones; they try to start with the final stage of transition. And they can’t see what went wrong!

In another example, an insurance company launched a program to generate cost-saving ideas. I don’t know what it cost, but it must have been expensive since it involved coordinating the activities and output of forty-eight teams. The director of the effort reported (with no apparent awareness of the irony of what he was saying) that this was the most creative idea submitted to date, which supported the best intentions of the program, and had a potential annualized savings of $140,000. If paper inserted into a fax machine is inserted sideways, it will cut transition time 15 percent. But then he added that he thought they’d have trouble implementing the idea because it would mean changing behavior.2

Well, scratch that idea! Let’s find one that doesn’t mean changing behavior. All the significant ones involve changing behavior, you ask? Turning the paper 90 degrees before you put it in the fax machine is a minor change compared to the behavior changes needed to make a merger, a reorganization, or a new corporate strategy work. Those changes trigger thousands of smaller changes, all of which require people to stop doing things an old way—which earned them rewards, gave them the satisfaction that comes from doing things “right,” and got them the results that made them feel successful—and try new and unfamiliar behaviors.

What happens in such a case reminds me of one of my early transition management projects, which involved setting up self-managed teams in a factory of a 105-year-old company. The company offered workshops (pretty good ones actually) on how self-managed teams work, but they offered no help to the supervisors who had to let go of “supervising” and start “facilitating” those teams. In other words they had to stop being “bosses” and work in a more collaborative manner with peers, which called for a big change in mindset and behavior. At the end of one of these workshops the instructor asked if there were any questions. “Yeah,” growled a grizzled old supervisor. “Will you run that ‘fassiltating thing’ by me one more time?” The idea of no longer telling people what to do and punishing them when they didn’t do it was so incomprehensible to the man that he just couldn’t say the word for what he was supposed to do in its place.

There is a time for departure, even when there’s no certain place to go.


Several important differences between change and transition are overlooked when people think of transition as simply gradual or unfinished change or when they use change and transition interchangeably.3 With a change, you naturally focus on the outcome that the change produces. If you move from California to New York City, the change involves crossing the country and then learning your way around the Big Apple. The same is true of your organization’s change to a service culture or its reorganization into global teams. In such cases the affected people have to understand the new arrangements and how they’ll be affected by these changes.

Transition is different. The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the ending that you’ll have to make to leave the old situation behind. Situational change hinges on the new thing, but psychological transition depends on letting go of the old reality and the old identity you had before the change took place. Organizations overlook that letting-go process completely, however, and do nothing about the feelings of loss that it generates. And in overlooking those effects, they nearly guarantee that the transition will be mismanaged and that, as a result, the change will go badly. Unmanaged transition makes change unmanageable.

Transition starts with an ending. That is paradoxical but true. Think of a big change in your own life: getting promoted into management, moving into the first house you owned, coming home from the hospital with your first child. Good changes, all of them, but as transitions each one started with an ending and a letting go. With the job, you may have had to let go of the way you interacted with your former peers. The kind of work you really liked to do and felt competent about may have ended when you shifted to managing. Maybe you had to let go of the straightforward nature of your work as the complexity and ambiguity increased.

Every new truth that has ever been propounded has, for a time, caused mischief; it has produced discomfort and oftentimes unhappiness; sometimes disturbing social and religious arrangements, and sometimes merely by the disruption of old and cherished associations of thoughts. . . . And if the truth is very great as well as very new, the harm is serious.


With the new baby, you probably had to let go of regular sleep, of extra money, of time alone with your spouse, and maybe time alone period. You almost certainly lost the pleasure of being able to take off spontaneously whenever the two of you felt like it. And there is nothing that makes you feel like you have lost your old sense of competence more than being faced with a baby who refuses to eat or just won’t stop crying.

With the move, a whole network of relationships ended. Even if you kept in touch with people in the old neighborhood, it was never quite the same. In your old home, you knew where the best shops and restaurants were, which doctor and dentist to go to, and which neighbor would keep an eye on the house while you were gone. In the new home, you had to let go of feeling settled in and at home for a while.

Even in these good changes, there are transitions that begin with endings, where you have to let go of something.4 In saying this, I am not trying to be negative or discouraging, just realistic. The failure to identify and get ready for endings and losses is the largest difficulty for people in transition. And the failure to provide help with endings and losses leads to more problems for organizations in transition than anything else.

A hospital implements an electronic medication dispensing system that moves from patient to patient. No one foresees how long it will take to learn the system, causing patients to wait for up to an hour for medications, as they watch the nurse struggle. Some nurses will feel a loss in letting go of the personal interactions, causing them to feel that anyone could do this. Or the organization builds a beautiful new headquarters building, and nobody foresees that many people—who’d been proud that they became a several-billion-dollar company while housed in a few nondescript, rented buildings—will view the new headquarters as the sign that the company they loved is gone.

Once you understand that transition begins with letting go of something, you have taken the first step in the task of transition management. The second step is understanding what comes after the letting go: the neutral zone. This is the psychological no-man’s-land between the old reality and the new one. It is the limbo between the old sense of identity and the new. It is the time when the old way of doing things is gone, but the new way doesn’t feel comfortable yet.

When you moved into your new house or got the promotion or had the new baby, the change probably happened pretty fast. But that is just the external, situational change. Inwardly, the psychological transition happened much more slowly: instead of becoming a new person as fast as you changed outwardly, you found yourself struggling for a time in a state that was neither the old nor the new. It was a kind of emotional wilderness, a time when it wasn’t quite clear who you were or what was real.

It is important for people to understand and not be surprised by this neutral zone, for several reasons. First, if you don’t understand and expect it, you’re more likely to try to rush through or even bypass the neutral zone—and to be discouraged when you find that doesn’t work. You may mistakenly conclude that the confusion you feel there is a sign that something is wrong with you.

Second, you may be anxious in this no-man’s-land and try to escape. (Employees do this frequently, which is why there is often an increased level of turnover during organizational changes.) To abandon the situation, however, is to abort the transition, both personally and organizationally—and to jeopardize the change.

Third, if you escape prematurely from the neutral zone, you’ll not only compromise the change but also lose a great opportunity. Painful though it is, the neutral zone is the individual’s and the organization’s best chance to be creative, to develop into what they need to become, and to renew themselves. The positive function of the neutral zone will be discussed further in a later chapter, so here let me simply say that the gap between the old and the new is the time when innovation is most possible and when the organization can most easily be revitalized.

The neutral zone is thus both a dangerous and an opportune place, and it is the very core of the transition process. It is the time when repatterning takes place: old and maladaptive habits are replaced with new ones that are better adapted to the world in which the organization now finds itself. It is the winter in which the roots begin to prepare themselves for spring’s renewal. It is the night during which we are disengaged from yesterday’s concerns and preparing for tomorrow’s. It is the chaos into which the old form dissolves and from which the new form emerges. It is the seedbed of the new beginnings that you seek.

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everybody gets busy on the proof.


Ending—neutral zone—new beginning. You need all three phases, and in that order, for a transition to work. The phases don’t happen separately; they often go on at the same time. Endings are going on in one place, in another everything is in neutral zone chaos, and in yet another place the new beginning is already palpable. Calling them “phases” makes it sound as though they are lined up like cubicles. Perhaps it would be more accurate to think of them as three processes and to say that the transition cannot be completed until all three have taken place.

Letting go, repatterning, and making a new beginning: together these processes reorient and renew people when things are changing all around them. You need the transition that they add up to for the change to get under the surface of things and affect how people actually work. Without them, there may be dust and noise, but when things quiet down and the dust settles, nothing is really different. Most organizations, however, pay no attention to endings, don’t acknowledge the neutral zone (and try to avoid it), and do nothing to help people make a fresh, new beginning, even as they trumpet the changes. Then they wonder why their people have so much difficulty with change.

He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils.


When I say that organizations do these things, I mean, of course, that people do. Only people—like you—can recognize that change works only when it is accompanied by transition. Only people—like you—can learn to manage transitions so that the changes that trigger them aren’t jeopardized. Only people—like you—can implement change in such a way that people actually get through it and the organization doesn’t end up being hurt rather than helped.

The following pages will show you how to do those things.5

1. See Paul Hochman, “The Brand Killer,” in Fortune Small Business (May 2002): 59ff.

2. Appeared in “The Idea Generator,” in HR Reporter 5.2 (February 1988): 3.

3. Such usage is not wrong, of course—just not helpful. In fact, “transition” is used in many settings to refer to drastic changes such as losing your job.

4. “Ending,” “letting go,” and “loss” are related concepts that we’ll be using more or less interchangeably. “Ending” refers to the thing that ceases. “Letting go” is what we have to do when that thing ceases. And “loss” is what we feel when we have to let go.

5. The appendices provide more detailed information about managing transitions. Appendix A is about assessing an organization’s readiness for transition. (It helps to know what you are in for before you find yourself knee-deep in trouble.) Appendix B lays out a ten-step process for planning a transition. Appendices C, D, and E deal with the leader’s role in getting an organization through transition, monitoring the transition process, and finding out what trouble people may be having in it, and adjusting your career thinking and action to the reality of frequent change.



               We think in generalities, but we live in detail.


A Test Case

Chapter 1 was fairly theoretical. Unless you understand the basic transition model, you won’t be able to use it. But only in actual situations can you use it, so let’s look at a situation that I encountered at a software company. I was brought in because the service manager wanted to make some changes, and his staff was telling him it wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought.

He told me that he didn’t see why that should be so. The change made perfect sense, and it was also necessary for the firm’s continued leadership in the field of business software for banks. “Besides,” he said, “no one’s going to lose a job or anything like that.”

Bearing in mind what you read in Chapter 1, see what you think.

The company’s service unit did most of its business over the telephone. Individual technicians located in separate cubicles fielded callers’ questions. The company culture was very individualistic. Not only were employees referred to as “individual contributors,” but also each was evaluated based on the number of calls he or she disposed of in a week. At the start of each year a career evaluation plan was put together for each employee in which a target (a little higher than the total of the previous year’s weekly numbers) was set. To hit the target brought you a bonus. To miss it cost you that bonus.

Purchasers of the company’s big, custom software packages called to report various kinds of operating difficulties, and people at three different levels handled the calls. First, the calls went to relatively inexperienced individuals, who could answer basic questions. They took the calls on an availability basis. If the problem was too difficult for the first level, it went to the second tier. Technicians at that level had more training and experience and could field most of the calls, but if they couldn’t take care of a problem, they passed it on to someone on the third level. The “thirds” were programmers who knew the system from the ground up and could, if necessary, tell the client how to reprogram the software to deal with the problem.

Each tier of the service unit was a skill-based group with its own manager, who was responsible for managing the workload and evaluating the performance of the individual contributors. Not surprisingly, there was some rivalry and mistrust among the different levels, as each felt that its task was the pivotal one and that the others didn’t pull their weight.

As you may have surmised, there were several inherent difficulties with this system. First, customers never got the same person twice unless they remembered to ask. Worse yet, there was poor coordination among the three levels. A level-one technician never knew to whom he was referring a customer—or sometimes even whether anyone at the next level actually took over the customers when he passed them on. Customers were often angry at being passed around rather than being helped.

Managers were very turf-conscious, and this didn’t improve coordination. Sometimes the second-tier manager announced that all the “seconds” were busy—although this was hard to ascertain because each technician was hidden in a cubicle—and then the service would go on hold for a day (or even a week) while the seconds caught up with their workload. In the meantime, the frustrated customer might have called back and found that he had to start over again and explain the problem to a different first-tier worker.

Not only were customers passed along from one part of the service unit to another, but sometimes they were “mislaid” entirely. The mediocre (at best) level of customer satisfaction hadn’t been as damaging when the company had no real competition, but when another company launched an excellent new product earlier that year, it spelled trouble.

The general manager of the service unit brought in a service consultant, who studied the situation and recommended that the unit be reorganized into teams of people drawn from all three of the levels. (This reorganization is what in the last chapter I called the change.) A customer would be assigned to a team, and the team would have the collective responsibility of solving the customer’s problem. Each team would have a coordinator responsible for steering the customer through the system of resources. Everyone agreed: the change ought to solve the problem.


  • Managing Transitions was timely when it first appeared twenty-five years ago. It is even more relevant now, at a time of unprecedented change and transition. The Bridges' deep understanding of how we experience the destabilizing forces of change--and their well-tested strategies for helping people through it--are more important than ever.
    Marshall Goldsmith, executive coach, business educator, and New York Times best-selling author, ranked top leadership thinker in the world by Thinkers50
  • A very wise book by a very wise man. This new edition is a celebration of William Bridges' original insights and practical guidance. With incisive contemporary cases and immediately useful applications, Susan Bridges masterfully reintroduces his exceptional work to a new generation.
    Jim Kouzes, coauthor of the best-selling The Leadership Challenge
  • Pick up any business book today and you will find words about unending change. What better guide for this unrelenting change than someone who has spent decades studying and reporting on how to survive it? If you need that guide--grab this book! William and Susan Bridges provide a road map to get through the most difficult work and life passages.
    Beverly Kaye, founder, Career Systems International; coauthor, Love 'Em or Lose 'Em
  • This richly updated new edition of the insightful Managing Transitions, filled with fresh and compelling examples, will be indispensable for leaders trying to guide their organizations through a period of unsettling change by managing the pain and uncertainty of the neutral zone. A timely update to a timeless book.
    Sally Helgesen, author, The Female Vision, The Web of Inclusion, The Female Advantage, and Thriving in 24/7
  • Managing change is a way of life in today's organizations, yet too often it's handled poorly. That's why Managing Transitions has become the essential guide on how to do it right. This new, revised edition deftly guides the reader through the organizational change process from start to finish, offering practical advice grounded in the authors' vast experience working with every size and type of organization. This book is must reading for every leader, manager, and employee undergoing a change process. Come to think of it, doesn't that include just about everyone?
    John Alexander, president, Leadership Horizons and former president and CEO of the Center for Creative Leadership
  • The most important idea I have encountered about organizational change is this: great change requires human transition. Decades of experience have proven that no magic set of steps, no financial incentive, no clever argument, and no threat can guarantee that a workforce will embrace change. People need real help in psychologically transitioning to a new situation--and that help is available here. In this fourth edition of Managing Transitions, William and Susan Bridges further expand their proven approach for helping people and organizations embrace real change.
    Walter McFarland, coauthor of Choosing Change and board chair emeritus for the Association for Talent
  • Managing Transitions is an essential guide for leaders and Chief People Officers who are navigating transitions and change within any organization. It is also a handbook in life for dealing with endings, new beginnings, and the disruptive 'neutral zone' in between. This book provides a pathway to human and authentic leadership and a way to gracefully navigate through the changes we all face in life.
    Gabrielle Toledano, EVP and chief talent officer, Electronic Arts, Inc.
  • Susan Bridges has done something generous, courageous, and brilliant with her updating of this classic and treasured book by Bill Bridges. In a collaborative process with the ideas of her late husband and business partner, she has made the language, concepts, and examples fresh again and available to a new audience. Bill's ideas have been fundamental to my own practice, and now they will inspire a new generation of leaders and change-makers to be wise, humane, and strategic, as they move their complex organizations through and increasingly challenging set of realities.
    B. Kim Barnes, CEO, Barnes & Conti Associates; author, Exercising Influence: Making Things Happen at Work, at Home, and in Your Community
  • Change is constant in today's global business environment, and yet change management continues to be a challenge for most organizations. That's why Managing Transitions remains an important book; it identifies the critically important role that understanding the human size of transition plays in effective change management. This updated edition is a must-read for anyone who wants to lead change successfully.
    Tony Bingham, president and CEO for the Association for Talent Development
  • "[A] brilliant book."—
  • "This book includes thought-provoking quizzes."
    Alaska Journal of Commerce
  • "[An] informative book."
    Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
  • "Provid[es] an elegantly simple yet profoundly insightful roadmap of the transition process."
    Cleveland Sun Messenger

On Sale
Jan 10, 2017
Page Count
208 pages

William Bridges

About the Author

William Bridges, PhD (1933-2013) was a preeminent authority on change and transition whose pioneering research provided a methodology and common language to guide organizations and individuals during the significant transitions that accompany a major change. As the founder of William Bridges Associates and a globally recognized speaker, author, and consultant, he advised individuals and organizations on how to deal productively with change. He was the author of ten books, including the bestselling Managing Transitions, Transitions, and The Way of Transition. With the publication of his groundbreaking book JobShift in 1994, William accurately predicted the explosive growth of self-employment, helping people understand how to prepare for a world in which secure jobs would be increasingly scarce. He later published Creating You & Co., which guides individuals on how to take charge of their career while navigating this new world of work. William received degrees from Harvard, Columbia, and Brown Universities, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s pragmatic philosophy heavily influenced his teachings.
Susan Bridges is the president of William Bridges Associates and has spent thirty-five years advising executives and leaders in organizations facing significant transitions. She updated and revised the 40th anniversary edition of Transitions and the 25th anniversary edition of Managing Transitions. Susan holds a BA in Speech and MA in Communications, with an emphasis in Neurolinguistics and Neuropsychology, from the University of Colorado. She has served as a Drucker Foundation Mentor, guiding the business leaders of tomorrow. As a former board member for the Institute of Management Consultants, she developed the first nation-wide mentoring and professional development program for management consultants. She lives in Marin County, CA.

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