Change – Do We Have a Choice? – Five Key Elements for Managing Change through a “Transitions Management” Approach

Change….  The one constant in our life is change but, despite the relentless charge of change, we never seem to embrace it, do we?

A few years ago, the State Department of Transportation started a comprehensive renovation project on one of the main routes I take to work each day.  The rationale was that the road needed to be widened to reduce congestion and improve safety.  The road was to be closed for 13 months.  Worst of all, this meant I needed to find another Dunkin’ Donuts at which to secure my morning coffee.  I was not happy.  I guess sometimes we just don’t have any say in change.

And now, many of us in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector are faced with huge changes.  Nonprofits, particularly those funded by government are facing significant budget cuts and “competition” for all dollars is increasing daily.  Grantmakers and other donors wonder if their donations are risky investments in organizations that might not be viable in the long-term.  For many of us, there can be growing feelings of resentment, anger and/or fear.   Change…do we have a choice?

William Bridges begins his book Managing Transitions by saying that “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions”.  Change he says is situational; Transition is psychological.  Many of our best nonprofit organizations are going through change (executive turnover, downsizing, merging, closures, new structures) and unfortunately, they are being bashed and bruised by the changes and missing the opportunities available when the people who are experiencing the change are not engaged through the psychological process.

We have discovered five key elements critical to successfully navigating the executive and organizational transitions we facilitate:

1)  Acknowledge Change:  First, it helps to acknowledge change is happening and that individual responses (shock, anger, fear) are natural.  Denying that change is happening will just make the “transition” more painful and will limit exploration of opportunities for a healthy future.  Guided discussion about the changes and potential opportunities are essential.

2)  Recognize loss:  It’s often hard to embrace new beginnings if we don’t recognize and acknowledge the loss resulting from the change.  Expressions of sadness, grief, anger, confusion, and fear often come first, before those impacted can begin to think about new beginnings.

3)  Take Time to Reflect and Plan:  Don’t rush!  Organizational and individual risks are increased by rushing through change.  When a CEO retires or funding is suddenly cut back, there is often a knee-jerk reaction to make the change quickly, without much reflection.  While timely responses are often needed, this rapid knee-jerk response will inevitably lead to bad results, including increased frustration, isolation, anger, and skepticism. Rushing may lead to bad decisions that lose resources and damage the reputation of the organization.  Bridges points out that a thoughtful process can cultivate discovery, optimism, and creativity.  “Interim” solutions can often help the organization to pause in the process of change and make the most of this neutral zone “discovery” period.

4)  Don’t Isolate:  Often when organizational leaders experience unwanted change they withdraw and attempt to hide the changes from staff, community partners, donors, and other investors.  This behavior leads to rumors, misunderstandings, and negatively impacts trust.  It helps to see the change process as a learning and “life cycle” event.  Communicating with and hearing from staff, partners, and investors on how best to navigate the changes can increase commitment and enthusiasm, and relieve some anxiety and worry.

5)  Celebrate the past along with the new beginnings:  New beginnings can bring excitement, but other emotions, too, can arise.  For those most ready to embrace the new, enthusiasm and impatience may set in.  Others may remain skeptical.  It provides perspective to celebrate the history of the organization along with the new beginnings and change.  Such an approach allows those who are impatient to see that there is movement and progress.  Simultaneously, others can see that past efforts are honored and appreciated.

Well, enough said – back to the Department of Transportation and my route to work.  I was angry and resentful for sure – especially when the trip took me an extra twenty minutes each way!  But now, two years down the road, there is some good news.

Even though I hate to admit it, now that the route is wider, more smoothly paved, and better lit, it is indeed a safer, more enjoyable, and even faster route – regularly about 8 – 10 minutes faster; and far less of the once routine one-hour congestion delays!   More importantly, I did find an alternative Dunkin Donuts to fill my short term need and it has now become my favorite!  I wonder if the former Dunkin Donut folks miss me?


The Support Center works with grantmakers and nonprofit organizations to effectively manage change and transitions, including Executive Transitions , Organization Assessments, Turnarounds, and Restructuring.

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