Transition As ‘The Way Through’

One of the main points I always try to make in presentations on transition is that it is not the same as change. In organisations, this distinction is confused by the way the word, “transition,” is used: they talk about transition teams and a transition plan and transition services—which turn out to be help for when you find yourself out on the street. As I see it, most of these items are really focused on the change that is happening to you, not the transition you are experiencing.

Transition is not just a nice way to say change. It is the inner process through which people come to terms with a change, as they let go of the way things used to be and reorient themselves to the way that things are now. In an organization, managing transition means helping people to make that difficult process less painful and disruptive.

The recently published The Way of Transition (2001) tells about my own recent journey through transition—triggered off by the death of my first wife, Mondi. In writing the book—and then in discussing it with readers—I came to understand another dimension to transition. I remember particularly a radio show call-in that I had from a man whose wife, like mine, had died of cancer. “I just can’t get over it!” he said with great feeling. “How do I get over it?”

As he talked, I had a picture of his wife’s death as a high wall that blocked his path, a wall that he was struggling to climb over. That is the way change often feels in our lives: like a barrier across our path, a disruption of our plans, a big hole that’s opened up at our feet. Naturally, we look for a way to “get over it.”

Getting through transition is not easy, but unlike the change-wall, transition represents a path to follow. To change your attention away from the change-barrier and toward the transition-path, you need to start where the transition itself starts: with letting go of the inner connections you had to the way things were. The question that always helps you to shift your focus from the change to the transition is, “What is it time for me to let go of?”

In the case of my wife’s death, what I had to let go of wasn’t so much the person I had been married to for 37 years or the marriage we had had. Those were the changes. To cross over the line into the transition, you need to ask yourself what inner relinquishments you’ll need to make because of the change. What needs will you have to find other ways to get met? Because of your change, what parts of yourself are now out of date?

If your change was the loss of your job, what might you have to let go of? Let’s see: a regular income, a group of colleagues and friends, a regular place to go every morning, a way to use your talents, a way to structure your time, a bunch of plans for the future, a way to get appreciated. You’d also lose an identity—or at least an answer to the question, “What do you do?” Those are the things that losing your job would force you to do without.

So, what is it time for you to let go of? (Yes, I mean you…now) In some area of your life, you are probably in transition right now, so that isn’t a hypothetical question. I’ve always found that asking that question opens up the path I have to follow. It often is a path I’d prefer not to have to follow, but given the change, I don’t have much choice. Fortunately, it is also a path that often leads to personal growth.

In what sense, could it be time for you to let go of that particular way to use your talents? In what way are you outgrowing the identity that you’ve been trading on for these past years? And if you can’t get appreciated any longer in your old work situation, is that loss in any sense a timely one?

Such questions give you a place to start, a path to follow. Every one of them suggests some learning, some discovery that may lie ahead. Each of them represents a gate in that change-wall that blocked your path.

I am not suggesting that this is a path that you wanted to take or that you will necessarily find it enjoyable. I am saying that it is a path with meaning for you, that following it will bring you out somewhere. What I am saying is that, since change is a wall and transition the gate in that wall, it’s there for you to go through it. Transition represents a path to the next phase of your life.

by William Bridges