Understanding the Three Transitions of Change

It has become almost a cliché that the only constant today is change.

What moves it from a cliché to a truism is that the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said the same thing – 2,500 years ago.

In spite of that historical background, we all feel that change is different today: it is without end, and increasingly complex. We talk not of a single change, but of change as an ongoing phenomenon. It’s a collage, not a single simple image; one change overlaps with another, and it’s all change as far as the eye can see.

To some degree, the downside of change is inevitable. Whenever human communities are forced to adjust to shifting conditions, pain is ever present. But a significant amount of the waste and anguish we’ve witnessed in change management is avoidable.

The typical church has not operated well in a rapidly changing environment. Structure, systems, and culture have often been a drag on change rather than a facilitator.

The failure to sustain significant change recurs again and again despite substantial resources committed to the change effort, talented and committed people “driving the change,” and high stakes. In fact, leaders feeling an urgent need for change end up right: organizations that fail to sustain significant change end up facing crises.

This isn’t the sort of challenge you take on because it sounds good.

Adapting to and mastering change is not a choice. A significant part of a leader’s responsibility deals with being a change agent in the organization’s culture. In a time when changes come so fast and from so many unexpected angles, change is no longer a luxury but an imperative.

Even though change is a must for your organization, the “how-to’s” can often prove a problem. Many people lunge into change with no idea of its rules, its guiding principles, its nuances – and its dangers. Quite often disaster is the result. The only thing worse than ignoring change is leaping into it willy-nilly.

THE QUICK SUMMARY – Managing Transitions by William Bridges

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.


If you were to gather a group of 10 to 20 people together, and ask them to discuss changes they are going through (or have recently gone through), before long you will notice all different types of change provide people with the same basic experience.

Three main similarities begin to present themselves:

  1. An ending, followed by
  2. A period of confusion and distress, leading to
  3. A new beginning.

However you deal with them, endings are the first phase of transition. The second phase is a time of lostness and emptiness before “life” resumes an intelligible pattern and direction, while the third phase is that of beginning anew.

That is the order of things in nature. Leaves fall in autumn, winter sets in, and then the green emerges again from the dry brown wood in the spring. Human affairs flow along similar channels, or they would if we were better able to stay in that current.

But endings are fearful. They break our connections with the setting in which we have come to know ourselves, and they awaken old memories of hurt and shame. Growing frightened, we are likely to abort the three-phase process of ending, lostness, and beginning.

Sometimes, we even twist the pattern around so that beginnings come first, then endings, and then…then what? Nothing.

It is when we turn things around in that way that transition becomes so unintelligible and frightening.

It isn’t the change that will do you in – it’s the transitions. Getting people through the transition is essential if the change is actually to work as planned.

The Three Phases of Transition

Endings – 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 deal with their losses.

Neutral Zone – Going through and in-between time when the old is gone but the new isn’t fully operational. Called the “neutral zone,” it’s when the critical psychological realignments and repatternings are taking place.

New Beginnings – 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 make the change begin to work.

William Bridges, Managing Transitions


On the top of a chart tablet, list a change in your organizational life that you have been considering.

Underneath this, divide the rest of the chart tablet into three columns, and write the headings “Endings,” “Neutral Zone,” and “New Beginnings” at the top of the columns.

Before you move forward, ask yourselves these three questions developed by the William Bridges Associates team:

  1. What is changing? Until any vagueness you have about change can be clarified and until the leaders of the change can explain it clearly, in a statement lasting no longer than one minute, there is no way that they are going to be able to get other people to buy into the change. Longer explanations and justifications will also have to be made but it is the one-minute statement that will be the core of people’s understanding.
  2. What will actually be different because of the change? Many change projects are designed and launched at such a high level in the organization that all the planning is unrelated to the everyday, operational details that make up the lives of most workers. In such cases, the decision-makers often have no idea how changes will actually make anyone’s life or job, or even the function of a whole department, different. Yet that is all that people need to know before they can embrace and support a change.
  3. Who’s going to lose what? There must be a hundred other versions of objections to dealing with endings and losses, but they are all variations on a single theme: the mistaken idea that the best way to get people through a transition is to deny that they are even in a transition. In fact many internal communications projects are based on this central misconception that you can (and should) talk people out of their reactions to the change.

Transition management is based on another idea: that the best way to get people through transition is to affirm their experience and to help them to deal with it. It is simply a question of understanding how the world looks to them and using that as the starting point in your dealings with them.

With an understanding of the dynamics covered in these three questions, spend at least one hour working through the three phases of transition, writing down words or phrases under each heading.

Excerpt taken from SUMS Remix 102-2, released October 2018.


Part of a weekly series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

Regular daily reading of books is an important part of my life. It even extends to my vocation, where as Vision Room Curator for Auxano I am responsible for publishing SUMS Remix, a biweekly book “excerpt” for church leaders. Each Wednesday on 27gen I will be taking a look back at previous issues of SUMS Remix and publishing an excerpt.

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