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