Transition Stress and Innovation

I’ve written previously questioning whether change is such a good thing. Even significant positive changes – innovations – require a period of transition before they become the ‘new normal.’ Managing those transitions is key to ensuring lasting change, but it isn’t easy.

One of the challenges of change management is that the leader’s change wave leaves everybody else in its wake. Even if everybody agrees that the change is a good one, the transition stresses have an impact. It takes a long time to get through to a feeling of ‘normal operations’.

At the National Managers’ Community, I contributed or led several innovations: a new website, a new registration system for events, a new tool for managing email communications, and so on. Everybody in the organization agreed that these changes were useful, positive, and beneficial – but implementing them was still difficult.

I understood the changes and was leading my colleagues through them, and there was a great deal of resistance; questions like, “Why is this harder than it was before?” and “This just doesn’t seem intuitive – why can’t it be like it was?” were common.

The culture of the organization had shifted. There were new ways of getting the work done, and new ways for people on the team to connect. Those changes were quick – one day we used the old system, the next day we used the new one. The transitions, however, took a great deal of time. It took patience, a lot of listening to concerns, and some calm explanations to help guide people through to the other side.

The danger in the public sector is that we never get past the stress of transition – it’s one change, followed by another, followed by another. We aren’t able to ground ourselves in a feeling of ‘normal’ and this makes it very difficult to get anything done. Productivity drops, people are frustrated and angry, and stress rises. Sometimes we need to slow things down, focus on one change at a time, and ensure that we aren’t leaving our people behind in the mad rush toward the future.

As a leader in an organization that’s changing, what are you doing to mitigate transition stress?


George Wenzel George Wenzel is a journeyman public servant. He’s worked in both legal and information technology roles, but his passion is leadership and management. He recently completed a two-year secondment to the National Managers’ Community as the Alberta Regional Coordinator and now works for Justice Canada. You can find him online at http://about.me/georgewenzel, http://www.govlife.ca, and on Twitter @georgewenzel.

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