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Beginning At the End

“Considering that we have to deal with endings all our lives, most of us handle them very badly.” These words by William Bridges in an early work of his on differentiating change and transition are as true today as when he wrote them over 40 years ago (Transitions: Making sense of life’s changes: Strategies for coping with the difficult, painful, and confusing times in your life, 1980).

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We tend to see endings, as Bridges says, “as something without sequel, forgetting that in fact they are the first phase of the transition process and a pre-condition of self-renewal.”

This blog post featuring the work of William Bridges builds on my Leadership Meets Life podcast episode released July 13, 2021. You can listen to it here, where I highlight the role of loss and letting go in order to deal successfully with the many transitions in life.

An overview of the Bridges approach to change goes something like this:

There are two key terms: change and transition. “Change is the external event or situation that takes place,” says Bridges. This change could be anything in your life, like a birth or death of a loved one, being let go (aka, fired) at work, or getting a big promotion, just to name a few examples. A global pandemic is also an example of a change!

In contrast to change, notes Bridges, transition “is the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the new situation that the change brings about…. The starting point for dealing with transition is not the outcome but the endings that people have in leaving the old situation behind.”

072721_Phil Blog Post Image 1Think of that for a second. Consider an African elephant. The gestation period for a baby elephant is 22 months of life in utero. The end of that time inside Momma elephant gives way to the birth—and beginning—of that baby elephant’s life outside. The beginning of that elephant walking and spraying water with its trunk started with an ending.

Similarly, graduation from high school or college, or these days—from preschool, like a few of my grandchildren have already experienced, signals a commencement. To commence is to begin or start. Yet, it would have no meaning apart from the arduous work that has just ended.

As noted with the William Bridges quote above, Endings are difficult, and most of us struggle to do them well. There are many stories and studies about the challenges of ending active work life and beginning some version of retirement. Endings mean dealing with loss, especially if the ending was forced or externally driven or resulted from something beyond our control. Some endings may feel as if they have their own stages, including what we can deal with at the moment and perhaps needing to revisit an ending later in a deeper way when we have more capacity.

Listen to my podcast episode on this topic to hear more about dealing with loss and letting go as it relates to change and transition wherever leadership meets life.


The Messy Middle

The second stage in the Bridges model is The Neutral Zone. It’s also the transition zone where necessary work takes place that can lead to transformation.

As a leader, you are well aware that your organization goes through changes. It must change to stay alive, to remain relevant, to grow, and thrive. But this phase brings out the best—and worst—in leaders and those we lead.

072721_Phil Blog Post Image 2Bridges uses an organizational life cycle model as one way of better understanding how this second, middle, messy, vital, Neutral Zone stage relates to the whole change and transition journey. He credits the work of business consultant Ichak Adizes who popularized a life cycle or life stage approach that views organizational life similarly to a human life cycle. To be fair to Bridges, he too spent much of his life developing a life cycle approach to organizational growth and death.

Drawing on Shakespeare’s seven ages of man from his work As You Like It, Bridges posits seven comparable stages of organizational life. There has been plenty of critique about the validity of organizational life cycle models. Yet, I appreciate the angle Bridges takes by admitting the number of stages could be fewer or greater than his seven. He humbly offers: “You could come up with a list of six or twelve stages and give them very different names, and you might have just as useful a map…Try it out in your own work, and see if it doesn’t clarify things.”

“Transitions,” states Bridges, “are the dynamic interludes between one of the seven stages of organizational life and the next. Their function is to close out one phase, reorient and renew people in that time we are calling the Neutral Zone, and carry people into the new way of doing and being that is the beginning of the next stage.”


The New Beginning

Having ended well and learned much on a transformation journey through a Neutral Zone, we are ready to embrace a New Beginning. British novelist D.H. Lawrence once said:

The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences…The world doesn’t fear a new idea. It can pigeonhole any idea. But it can’t pigeonhole a real new experience.

We both anticipate and fear New Beginnings. After long journeys through the wilderness and unknow of the Neutral Zone, it’s a relief for most of us to begin again. Some are energized and eager to learn, while others are ambivalent or apprehensive, but most of us are ready to move on from the unknown.

A global pandemic that never seems to end is exhausting! We know when the ending happened, but when do we get to a new normal? Is there a new normal? Am I still in the wilderness, or has a New Beginning begun?

072721_Phil Blog Post Image 3Bridges notes that it helps whenever entering a New Beginning to have a Purpose, a Picture, a Plan, and a Part. Be clear about the why: The Purpose. Paint the outcome of what it will look and feel like: A Picture. Develop steps or phases of how we move forward: A Plan. Help people understand their role in the New Beginning: The Part they will play.


Laws of Organizational Development

Bridges posits what he calls “laws of organizational development” to complement and further develop his version of an organizational life cycle. Personally, I would have chosen the term principles over laws, but you may see that as semantics. At any rate, here are his five laws of organizational development:

  1. Those who were most at home with the necessary activities and arrangements of one phase are the ones who are the most likely to experience the subsequent phase as a severe personal setback.
  2. The successful outcome of any phase of organizational development triggers its demise by creating challenges that it is not equipped to handle.
  3. In any significant transition, the thing that the organization needs to let go of is the very thing that got it this far.
  4. Whenever there is a painful, troubled time in the organization, a developmental transition is probably going on.
  5. During the first half of the lifecycle—through the Making-It stage—not to make a transition when the time is right for one to occur will cause a developmental [delay] in the organization.

Each of the above “laws” would merit unpacking, which I won’t take the time to do here, but if you find this intriguing, grab a copy of the book Managing Transitions (see resources section below) and dig in.

The Bridges model can be applied to personal as well as organizational development. Try it. Re-read the above five laws and see how they fit with a transition you recently went through or are in the middle of right now.


Our Relationship With Change

As leaders, we all experience life differently. And the same is true of those we lead and serve. Because we experience life differently, we experience change differently.

Some of us are wired such that we tend to enjoy change and are often energized by it. The anticipation, the unknown, the thrill, the figuring it out. It’s engaging and stimulating.

Others of us feel threatened or anxious by changes of nearly any size and resist change wherever we can. Our relationship with change is one we know is unavoidable, but we need to be dragged through it, reluctantly, painfully, anxiously.

Because we differ in our relationship with change, leaders need to be discerning, proactive, and empathetic as we lead through times of change and transition. Some of those we serve will experience the uncertainty of Endings with excitement and anticipation, ready to help bring closure so we can move on. Others will be in denial, perhaps filled with confusion, reservation, or frustration; they remain unconvinced that anything good can come from leaving what has worked in the past.

The same dynamic plays out during the Neutral Zone, that middle transition space where the makings of transformation begin. Some folks will experience this as a challenge to be embraced, as a time for creativity and experimentation, and innovation. They are ready and eager to see how these new machines or this new software will make their and the organization’s life better and more efficient.

Other folks remain skeptical and experience the Neutral Zone as a time of suffering, anxiety, confusion. Many of these folks find it challenging to be motivated about the changes impacting them from this new technology or different entry or longer (or shorter) processes. Energy that could be spent on learning gets channeled into resistance and complaints. These folks need to feel heard, valued, and understood even though the transition is moving forward.

The Neutral Zone, that middle stage that finds our people all over an experiential map, ends earlier for some than others. Those who tend to embrace change or don’t love change but have learned not to keep fighting it can move into the third stage in the Bridges model: New Beginning.

Others, however, may be scattered along an experiential timeline, inching or lunging forward, dragging themselves or nursing themselves toward a New Beginning. A leader needs to find ways to motivate, inspire and care for this spectrum of humanity and their varying relationships with change. And as you likely know, that in itself is an enormous leadership challenge. By and large, in my experience, leaders that tend toward change, often open to it even if it presents challenges.

Another factor impacts how organizations handle change and transition. Those of us in leadership have a longer view of the future. We thus have begun dealing with our own concerns about pending change well in advance of others who will eventually find out about and be impacted by the change that’s coming. In some ways, this is inevitable since much of leadership is about anticipating and exploring but not always acting on all the possibilities. But some of the organizational angst is avoidable through proactive, constructive, and transparent communication and giving those we serve enough time to deal with their own feelings, fears, and hopes about how changes may impact them.

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Here are some resources you might find helpful as you explore this topic:

This blog post builds on my recent Leadership Meets Life Podcast Episode 04: It’s the Transitions that Get You. Take a listen to dig deeper!


Summing it up

William Bridges developed a powerful three-stage model that differentiates change from transition. Change is external and happens to us. Transition is our experiential journey dealing with the change regardless of whether we chose the change or it was imposed on us.

The first phase is the Ending. The Ending is about loss and letting go that is necessary in light of the change. A child old enough to head off to camp or college is an Ending. It’s a change, and how we prepare for and respond to that change matters. Moving from paper entry to fully digital record-keeping is an Ending. Coming to terms with what I liked about paper entry and embracing new technology matters.

The second phase is the Neutral Zone. This messy middle is the time and space when someone is coming to terms with what has ended, and yet the New Beginning hasn’t yet fully come into view or isn’t yet fully being realized. This could be the neutral space between jobs or significant relationships, or it could be the journey required to learn a new language or technology. Some of us embrace change, and others of us resist it. Leaders must understand the differences in how those we lead and serve deal with change so we can provide the necessary training, structure, and empathy to address the spectrum of responses to change in our organization.

The third phase is the New Beginning. This is an opportunity to live into a transformed future. It’s also a time to be alert for past patterns that may want to be re-inserted back into organizational life. Bridges proposes four Ps: Purpose, Picture, Plan, and Part. Purpose can guide a New Beginning. A Picture of what this New Beginning can help inspire and motivate, although it cannot carry all the freight alone. A Plan can help flesh out the Picture, especially when everyone in the organization understands what Part they play.

As always, future blogs and podcasts in the Leadership Meets Life series will continue to build on today’s blog. Reach out to me with ideas, questions, and solutions you have encountered in dealing with change and transition. I’d love to hear from you!


Take-Away Questions

  • What transition(s) are you in that resulted from a change?
  • Which of the three stages are you in—Ending, Neutral Zone, New Beginning?
  • What’s one thing you will do this week to move yourself forward?


Whats Next

Next month we’ll look at another helpful leadership approach to add to your learning toolbox. It will feature the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey and their approach to dealing with what they call Immunity to Change. It deals with competing commitments within organizations or within individuals that hold us back from making the changes we say we want to make.

Don’t miss it! If you haven’t yet signed up for the Leadership Meets Life Blog and Podcast click here for more information and to sign up!


Let me know how you’re connecting with the Leadership Meets Life Blog and Podcast. I’d love to hear from you! You can reach me directly at philb@designgroupintl.com or by visiting my website.


Phil Bergey
On the journey with you,
Philip C. Bergey


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Philip C. Bergey
Post by Philip C. Bergey
July 27, 2021
I walk alongside leaders, listening to understand their challenges, and helping them lead healthy organizations that flourish.