Change vs. Transition: What’s the Difference?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Managing Transitions" by William Bridges and Susan Bridges. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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In business, why is there a distinct difference between change vs. transition? Which is worse to manage: change or transition?

In Managing Transitions, Susan and William Bridges explain that to effectively manage transitions, you must first understand the difference between a change and a transition. Understanding the difference serves both the organization and the manager.

Continue reading to understand how the authors differentiate between the two concepts.

Understanding Change vs. Transition

The authors make an important distinction in the change vs. transition debate:

  • Change is external. It happens to us and around us. For example, a canceled flight is an external change—something beyond our control.
  • Transition, on the other hand, is internal. Transition is the psychological process by which we deal with change. For instance, when our flight gets canceled, we have to emotionally come to terms with a new plan we didn’t anticipate. 

(Shortform note: While psychologists have long distinguished between external changes and how humans internally process those changes, the language of “change” and “transition” became more common after the introduction of the Bridges Transition Model.  When defining the difference between change and transition, psychologists often cite the work of William and Susan Bridges. Psychologists have applied the Bridges Transition model in numerous contexts beyond the realm of business, from discussions of grief and loss to the challenges of leaving abusive relationships.)

Everyone confronts change on a daily basis. Change is inevitable and happening all the time: seasons change, relationships end, people move, and companies are bought and sold. In Managing Transitions, the authors argue that external change is neutral, but our internal reaction to it (the transition) can be challenging. (Shortform note: Change is challenging because humans have evolved to prefer certainty. Our survival has depended on our ability to control our environment, so when we experience change, our brains tend to respond to it as a potential threat to our survival, causing a fear reaction.)

Therefore, organizational leaders should focus their energy on managing transitions. The authors caution that if an organization attempts to implement changes without supporting the people impacted (such as employees, clients, and partners) through the psychological process of transition, the goals of the change are bound to fail.

Defining Success and Failure in Change Initiatives

A common refrain in the literature of change management is that 70% of all change initiatives fail. While this statistic is repeated over and over, there’s no clear evidence or research to back the claim. In 2011, an extensive literature review found that there was no reliable evidence or research to support this statistic, yet it continues to be quoted as a widely-accepted fact.

One of the challenges with this commonly cited statistic is that it lumps change initiatives into two categories—success and failure. In a 2008 survey, global executives were asked to categorize their organizational transformations as 1) extremely successful, 2) very successful, 3) somewhat successful, or 4) not successful at all. 

Interestingly, while only 4.88% of executives identified the transformation as “extremely successful,” 48.96% said their transformation was somewhat successful, and only 5.87% said the transformation was not successful at all—or a failure.

While organizational leaders and change consultants agree with William and Susan Bridges that organizational transformation is challenging and rarely goes according to plan, it would be inaccurate to describe all change initiatives that are not 100% successful as failures. More often, success falls somewhere along the spectrum of success.

Change vs. Transition: What’s the Difference?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of William Bridges and Susan Bridges's "Managing Transitions" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Managing Transitions summary:

  • A guidebook for any leader that wants to survive organizational change
  • How to go through the three-step emotional process of transition
  • How to help others navigate the loss and grief associated with transition

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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