The 3 Strategies for Implementing Change in an Organization

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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What are some ways to implement change in an organization? How should you prepare your team for change?

In Managing Transitions, Susan and William Bridges discuss strategies to manage the different stages of transition in businesses. Many organizations will arrive at a stage that requires implementing final changes.

Read below to learn how to implement change in organizations.

Strategies to Manage Emerging

After muddling through the bridge stage, organizations have the opportunity for what the authors refer to as a “new beginning.” We’ll call this stage emerging.

William and Susan Bridges emphasize that the emerging stage doesn’t happen the same day that the changes take place. Even though new policies or team configurations have been implemented, it takes time for people to come to terms with the changes. Emerging can’t happen until there’s buy-in from your team. They’ll need to let go of the past, understand and accept the reason for the changes, and implement the changes required.

(Shortform note: Many leaders approach getting team buy-in with a “describe and defend” strategy. In these instances, leaders develop an idea and then sell it to their team as the logical way forward. However, a team is more likely to buy into change when they have had the opportunity to discuss, question, and debate the idea. Including your team from the beginning of the conversation is important for true and long-lasting organizational buy-in.)

So what strategies can you use to help implement change in an organization?

1. Plan Ahead

First, outline the transition step-by-step. Get specific. Organizational leaders often hold the big picture, but it’s equally important to have a clear plan of how to get from Point A to Point B. Make sure you know (and communicate) how big changes will affect your team members’ professional lives on a daily basis and what will be required of them through each step of the process. (Shortform: This step-by-step planning is the same skill required of a project manager. The Work Breakdown Structure is a helpful tool used by many project managers to divide a big project goal into more manageable tasks and to make estimates about the resources (time and money) that will be necessary to complete those tasks.)

2. Lead With Empathy

Keep leading with empathy to build trust and buy-in. To increase buy-in to implement necessary changes in your organization, involve everyone. Be explicit about the role that each individual is expected (and has the opportunity) to play in the future of the organization. People want to understand where they fit in and how they can contribute. When possible, give everyone a role in the transition process as well. Knowing where they fit ensures that people continue to feel valued and invested in the process.

(Shortform note: Making sure that everyone on a team feels valued and included is an example of establishing psychological safety. Establishing psychological safety enables any team member to share their views and take risks without fear of retaliation or rejection, and the presence of psychological safety is a better indicator of team productivity than team members’ skill level or intellect. In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg encourages leaders to build psychological safety within their teams by making sure all team members have the opportunity to participate equally and being sensitive to people’s emotional well-being.)

3. Communicate With Intention

Even when you feel you’ve communicated everything clearly, say it again. Keep reinforcing the why. What problems are the changes trying to address and why should people care? The communicated purpose needs to be specific, meaningful, authentic, and relevant to your team.

Don’t forget to share the long-term vision. This is the exciting part of any change. You can mitigate anxiety by offering a clear vision. Describe what the world will feel like once the dust has settled. What is the future vision of the organization that you are moving towards? To get on board, people need to be able to imagine how the end goal will look and feel. 

The Challenge of Managing Ongoing Change

Up until this point, we’ve focused on the process of a single transition. Unfortunately, rarely do changes occur only one at a time. 

Organizational leaders often grapple with multiple coinciding and related changes that require them to manage multiple coinciding and related transitions. Moreover, while there has never been a time in our history when change hasn’t occurred, many people would argue that the rate of change has increased dramatically in recent years. 

For instance, consider the example of how much changed for the global workforce with the outbreak of Covid-19. Employees and managers, already implementing typical changes in their organizations, were quickly forced to navigate the exceptional transition of remote or hybrid work and asked to implement new strategies and technologies that were previously unimaginable. 

Because transitions don’t occur in isolation, the three stages of the transition process often happen concurrently and converge on one another.

So how can you effectively manage concurrent and converging transitions when changes are ongoing? The authors offer two main strategies as tools for coping with ongoing change.

First, plan for change itself. Though we can’t predict the future, anticipating how an organization is growing and potential future challenges will allow you to prepare for future changes that might otherwise catch you off guard. Don’t be afraid to imagine the worst thing that could happen. How would you respond? What would you need to do? By considering what could go wrong, you’ll be better prepared to manage the organization when things fall apart.

(Shortform note: Knowing we cannot fully predict the future, Charles Duhigg advocates for the power of “probabilistic thinking.” Probabilistic thinking is a cognitive process that involves identifying all potential outcomes of your decision and the probability of each one occurring. Studies show that probabilistic thinking can increase the accuracy of your prediction by more than 50%, allowing you to better prepare for a broad range of future changes.)

Second, build a team that’s prepared for transitions. Give your team opportunities to collaborate, be creative, and step outside their defined roles. A team that has a clear vision of the entire organization and that has practiced working outside its comfort zone will be better prepared to weather any unexpected changes.

The 3 Strategies for Implementing Change in an Organization

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  • How to go through the three-step emotional process of transition
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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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