When an organization is facing a big change - the arrival of a new leader, a shift in strategy, rapid growth (or decline) - one often hears the well-worn reminder that “change is not an event, it is a process.” Well-intended advice, perhaps, but not helpful. It is not helpful because when change is at hand, hard work is needed, not sage advice. It is not helpful because with all new pressures, we have to focus on the work, not words.
And it is not helpful, most precisely, because it is not true.
As first described by Dr. William Bridges in 1991, “change,” is an event; it is an external experience, the act of making or becoming different. “Transition,” on the other hand, is the process of evolving from one state or condition to another. It is a multi-phase journey that individuals and organizations undertake (consciously or not). It is a journey in which emotions and competencies develop over time moving from shock and disbelief through a period of frustration and on to experimentation, integration and resolution. Change happens; transition is the process we go through in response to the change.
The world of the innovator is by definition one of change: often creative and frequently disruptive, innovation is about developing and deploying big changes to existing systems with a focus on heightened outcomes. A risk-resilient innovator working in a design-thinking paradigm, moves quickly, thrives on failure (“fail fast and learn”), and accepts that many, if not most, innovative ideas will go through multiple iterations until they prove themselves or collapse.
Innovation can get derailed at any point, but I would suggest that some wonderful ideas fail not because of inherent flaws in design or execution. They fail because the system and the people in it are not supported through a period of transition. The team has not had the time and space to understand and adjust to the change. Ask an innovator what she is doing, and she’ll likely reply, “I’m innovating.” Ask those around her, and you will hear, “we’re trying to cope.” The “ready-fire-aim” approach of some innovative leaders butts up against the real human need for “ready-aim-fire,” which in my experience is actually: “aim(!), ready(?), ready(?), ready(!), fire.”
Thoughtful innovational leaders create the space and allow the time requisite for those around them to work though the transition. They name the “old ways” and allow others to reflect on how “the change” will mean doing business differently. They accept that most people need a neutral zone in which to process their feelings, anticipating and accepting that they might include anger and dismay (and they may not!). Innovative leaders allow others to experiment, to put their toe in the water of the new, and see this as progress rather than resistance. And when the change has taken root and no longer feels like, well, a change, leaders celebrate that together the team has made the transition and has arrived at a new beginning.
Dr. Marc N. Kramer is the founder of Kramer Education Group. He served as the Executive Director of RAVSAK after working as a Jewish day school head and administrator.