Why are transitions always so messy?

A friend of mine is being transferred to another organization. Such changes are not uncommon; in fact in this day and age they seem to be taking place more frequently.

Many of us would also be familiar with the mess that happens when people move. Although my friend is pretty a hardworking and detailed person, the transition still felt chaotic. She felt bad leaving a mess behind, and more so, she felt guilty that she was “abandoning” her team.

Why are transitions so messy, and must they always be so? Why can’t the transition be orderly?

I am not an expert, but I suspect the notion of an orderly transition is an idealistic myth of a highly systemized world. It is a world that believes that systems are the be-all and end-all of organizations. It is a highly rational world that believes that with the right knowledge management systems, procedures and protocols, and detailed handing-taking over task lists, any transition can be managed. It may also add, “no one is indispensable”.

In the real world, things are not so idealized or simple. William Bridges, a famous change consultant, popularized the idea that transitions involve emotional and psychological processes. Particularly when someone is a key member of a team or a respected leader, the loss can be deep and letting go can be hard. People may go through a range of emotions, such as denial (“It can’t be happening!”), anger (“How can you do this?”), depression (“We have been abandoned…”). Eventually, most people come to terms with the change (“Life has to go on. We will get by.). These are similar to the range of emotions when one grieves the death of a loved one (although the severity may be different).

sad dog

During a transition, emphasis is often placed on the transfer of knowledge and duties. This is well intentioned, since organizations must continue to function. At the same time, as much as we try to transfer the knowledge, often not a lot goes through! A grieving heart is not good at registering logic. When there too many things weighing on one’s mind, one does not pay attention to all the logical details. And so, no matter how much and how well we brief others, little goes through and often things still get messy and chaotic.

Does this mean that planning and preparing are not useful? Not true either. Planning and preparing can be helpful before a loss hits (e.g. if a succession is planned and made known well ahead of time), or after people have overcome their emotions and accepted the loss. But not when they are still struggling with the loss.

When the heart grieves, the mind closes. In my view, the best transition is to support people emotionally. In fact, I would suggest placing more emphasis on the heart than the mind. It may be painful, it may be drawn out, but it is important. People need to grieve, seek support in one another, and find closure. The sooner they are helped to get over the loss, the better frame of mind they will be in to direct their energies to the tasks at hand.

And so, I believe that transitions should always be managed carefully, and organizations should not be cavalier about them.

Quick comment on “dispensability”: I agree that no one is indispensable, however I would argue that there are always better, and also worse, ways to manage a transition. For example, planning to have multiple major transitions going on at the same time simply makes things a lot more unpredictable and potentially chaotic. So yes, no one is indispensable, but how you manage the change matters a great deal too. A successful transition is as much the responsibility of the people who hand over and take over, as it is the responsibility of the leadership that lets that happen. Leaders that happily believe that structures and systems alone will ensure smooth transition, or who believe that they can order any change since “no one is indispensable”, may be playing around with their fortunes of their organizations and the well being of their people.

Photo Credits:

Rich Renomeron via photopin cc


“Willful Blindness”

This morning, I listened to a brilliantly sobering TED talk by Margaret Heffernan on the topic of Willful Blindness.

The concept of willful blindness originates from law, where one intentionally avoids civil responsibility by putting himself in a position where he will be unaware of facts that would render him liable (wikipedia).

Likewise, we may be aware of certain social issues (and even disturbed about them) but prefer or choose not to see, hear or do anything about them.  There are different possible reasons for this, for example:

  • A general sense of helplessness or powerlessnes;
  • Concern over investing effort that does not pay off well;
  • Fear of consequences (esp. if it challenges authority or social norms);
  • Diffused civic responsibility (we think someone else will do something); or
  • Expecting the authority to do something (something not uncommon at home!).

In each of the reasons above, we start off with a sense of discomfort.  We may not be able to pinpoint it, but something just does not feel right e.g. when we see disadvantaged groups or groups who are taken advantage of.  The discomfort arises because it goes against our moral sense of values such as care, fairness and collectivism.  Yet, the same discomfort also chews at us, because we have a common and shared civic responsibility to do something.

There are a few strategies to address the discomfort when it arises: revise our moral code (very difficult to do), take action to redress the situation (which may take moral courage and effort), or rationalize the situation.  As it turns out, we are pretty good at the last strategy of rationalizing.

The trouble with rationalizing is that when we do it, and hundreds and thousands of others who are just like us, do the same, we collectively condone and perpetuate the conditions that create the social issues in the first place.  This inconvenient truth is a kinder version of a quote by the late US President John Kennedy, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”.

How is this related to the non-profit cause?

I notice that many non-profits emerge in response to some social issue(s).  This is highly noble.  At the same time, it is important to bear in mind that while the non-profit is about the social issue, the reverse is not true.  The social issue is not about the non-profit.

The reality behind social issues is often the lack of, and thus the need to have more and not less, collective responsibility and response.  Therefore, rather than make themselves the center of the issue, the mission of non-profits is to help each and every one of us realize our common and shared civic responsibility to confront those issues and take action.  Their role is to help us overcome our collective willful blindness to the issues and their effects.

There are many things that non-profit need to mobilize in each and every one of us, but I shall just list four of them (by no means exhaustive).

  • The moral courage to confront the tensions
  • The ability to reflect deeply about them
  • Developing our voice and agency to respond to them

My thoughts on the issue are still forming and evolving, but it seems clear that if non-profits are serious about their mission, it cannot be just about soliciting more donations to offer more services.

The following three cute monkeys is the original manifestation of the old saying “See no evil.  Hear no evil.  Speak no evil.”  In light of Heffernan’s comments on willful blindness, there is another possible reality: “Choose to see nothing.  Choose to hear nothing.  Choose to say (or do) nothing.”  Hopefully we can be less of the latter!

see no evil hear no evil speak no evil