The Four States of Transition Management


Leaders often mistake change and transition. They are not the same. In this post, I discuss the difference between the two and provide insight into managing the emotional and psychological transitions experienced by the people involved in the change.

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Have you ever researched a change management framework?

There are plenty from which choose — Kotter’s Eight-Steps for leading change, McKinsey & Company’s 7-S Framework, Kurt Lewin’s Change Model, The ADKAR Model, The Kübler-Ross Model, and the Satir Change Management Model, to name a few.

These models all offer a process for leading change. Some are probably better than others, and some are more useful for specific change scenarios than others. But what is missing from nearly every change process is transition management.

If you’ve heard this part of the conversation before, feel free to skip down to the states of transition. If not, it’s helpful to understand why a change process isn’t sufficient for most change efforts.

The difference between change and transition:

Any change process that ignores the people affected by the process is nearsighted and insufficient. A successful change effort requires transition management, and they are not the same. Change is different than transition. Change is the new pending circumstances. On the other hand, transition is the emotional, psychological, and spiritual adjustments people undergo as change moves forward. Change focuses on what, but transition focuses on who and partially how; therefore, change needs leadership while transitions need management.

Bottom line: Unmanaged transition makes changes unmanageable.

With this differentiation in mind, leaders desirous of change must integrate transition management. Typically, transition management occurs in four distinct, yet at times, overlapping states.

States of Transition Management:

I plan to expound on these states in-depth in future writings, but let this serve as an overview.

Phase 1: State of Comfortable

This state is why change is necessary. As a leader, you see what is and recognize what could or should be. This recognition makes the current state intolerable. The tendency in this state is to plow ahead with a change initiative. Change agents recognize the need for transition management, not just change leadership. This first state is where you are, but it’s not where you can stay. It’s time for a change, and that requires some transition from comfort.

Phase 2: State of Caution

Every change effort begins with an ending. People don’t like endings. Endings are why many change initiatives barely make it off the ground. Endings are why many people are change-resistant. But “every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” I know, that’s a line from Semisonic’s song Closing Time. But it’s true. Nothing new can begin unless what is old is ended.

When faced with the potential of ending what’s understood and comfortable, people resist. Leadership often views this resistance as a coup, but it’s not. It’s just the natural reaction to change. Contentious resistance is a natural reaction to losing comfort. As leaders, we must manage people through the state of contention.

Phase 3: State of Confusion

Resistance doesn’t give way to change but to confusion. People experiencing change find themselves confused. What used to be clear and comfortable is now confusing. What was simple feels complex. Change efforts begin by deconstructing the current status quo. Unfortunately, creating what’s next can’t happen in tandem with deconstruction. Let me rephrase that a bit. A leader can attempt to tear down the old while simultaneously building the new, but that change process ignores the time needed for transition and therefore doesn’t work.

The state of confusion is essential. It gives time for people to bury the old way before birthing the new. In this state, everyone wants to “just go back to the way we used to do it.” That’s a good sign. Just wanting to go back means you’re making progress in moving forward. Stick it out. The state of confusion will give way to a new, better state.

FYI: Innovation can thrive in this state if leadership manages the transition well.

Phase 4: State of Conversion

The state of transformation is the final, desired state. Most leaders don’t realize they’ll need to pass through the previous states first, though. Shortcut the contention and confusion, and you’ll shortchange the change. Change only sticks when leaders actively manage people through the necessary states of transition.

I’ve led through lots of organizational change. I’ve experienced even more. The most important thing I’ve learned is that leading change isn’t enough. A change leader must also be a transition manager for anything to change.

How can I help?

Getting better is why I created Transformation Solutions. At Transformation Solutions, we help churches discern what needs to change and coach pastors through the challenge of change. If you are ready to get better, I’d love to support you and your church through the process of evaluation and execution.

Go right now to and sign up for a free, 30-minute conversation to decide if working together works for you.