Toward a holistic model for leading change (revised)

Jase Miller
10 min readDec 1, 2023

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Charles Handy, a business school professor and philosopher, used a sigmoid curve to convey insights about how we learn and grow, how organizations and teams grow, and how identifying the right opportunities and timing for change and innovation lead to successful, sustained growth. By contrast, those who miss the timing of the cycle have a much harder time changing or may find it entirely impossible. Decline is an inevitability. Growth is not.

In Handy’s model there’s an initial decline that represents the investment required to learn and grow. As a person or organization find their way, growth typically follows. This is represented by an upward climb where momentum, energy, and confidence build. Reaching a plateau at some point, a person or organization reaches the fulfillment of that growth trajectory and then begins to decline as they hold fast to the status quo. What made them great, they assume, will continue to make them great. However, without some disruption of the status quo, this leads to the end of the line. All passengers and crew must exit.

Handy’s brilliant insight, then, is the potential for a person or organization to identify the ideal transformation point and essentially disrupt themselves while they still have momentum and energy in an upward direction. This results in a second decline because the change or innovation requires investment to navigate. The end result of this kind of successful, successive change is sustained growth with small, strategic declines leading to bigger and bigger growth. It can avoid the large, stagnant decline many once successful organizations experience when they feel they’ve “arrived” and try to ride out their success by holding fast to the status quo. Rather than slowly dying, the learning and growth are continuous.

One colleague of mine who most embodied this way of thinking was Rick Knox. I worked with him toward the end of his life and he was fond of saying, “Never stop learning”—and was constantly reinventing himself by learning something new. When most people feel they’ve learned “enough” to get “set in their ways”, Rick actively pushed against that inertia. In his career he had done countless, varied jobs around the world, and he stayed curious, believing he could learn something from anyone he met.

“Get comfortable being uncomfortable.”

Learning is an uncomfortable experience. We struggle to understand, we fail to apply what we’re learning. Rick had learned how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. In time, he had learned to anticipate an opportunity to learn something new whenever he felt uncomfortable. It was remarkable to navigate and even create change in his presence.

Purposefully creating change

I met Rick working for a global nonprofit organization where one of my many responsibilities was change management. Having an advanced degree in communication theory and culture change I thought I was well-equipped—at least to make a respectable start. I was wrong.

I quickly learned that change management theories rarely succeed in the real world. There’s a reason for this significant disconnection, but first, let me provide a little context about what became my “school for leading change”…

The organization’s mission required it to create change constantly. The reason the organization existed was to disrupt the status quo in support of people whose present reality and future were bleak. So long as the status quo persisted, a future of poverty, lack of educational opportunities, poor access to healthcare, and broken families and communities were all but assured. Our mission was to come alongside communities to create a context where intentional community-led actions could change the future for those communities.

This kind of change agency is not a drop-in, flip a switch, and exit type of work. It’s a deep and involved journey that requires a commitment to entering into the brokenness of those communities. In time we shifted our language to refer to transformation because the word change misrepresents the complexities of the longer journey that must take place.

“Change is hard.”

We all feel it. But change is actually easy. The word hides a complex set of dynamics—some of which are truly difficult.

Change — the zero to one concept of distinguishing between an old state and a new state. Draw a line to divide two halves. One side contains the old ways and the other contains the new ways. The change is flipping from one to the other. Easy. Or is it…?

A common tendency is to see change as a threshold or doorway that anyone “open” to change can cross to make it from the old ways to the new ways. Managing change, in this view, is largely about flipping switches from the old way to the new way.

A “successful” change leader, then, must be one who communicates with clarity and purpose, expressing why the change is necessary and exactly what is and isn’t changing. These are absolutely key aspects of leading change, but are they enough?

If this is the right way to think about change, why do so many change efforts fail and so many people resist change so strongly, even though they may have a lot of clarity about the change? Why does change feel so hard?

“Transitions are hard.”

The problem with the common threshold view of change is that it tends to ignore or minimize the actual process that people must go through in order to leave the old ways and embrace the new. In his classic (though too often overlooked) book Managing Transitions, William Bridges insightfully draws our full attention to the critical importance of leading through transitions.

Transition — the process of moving from one way of being or doing to a new way of being or doing. Instead of focusing on what is changing, transitions pay attention to the people undergoing the change. Bridges describes three zones involved in this transition.

Endings — the old, familiar ways that must end in order for the new ways to begin. Even changes that are considered “good changes”, such as promotions or marriages or births involve the loss of what was known and familiar.

Neutral Zone — the zone between the old and the new is simultaneously dangerous and potentially generative. This is the zone where we feel most confused, grieving the loss of what we knew before, but not yet able to live into the new. It’s a time when people experience feelings like loss, discouragement, anxiety, and fear. It’s also a time that the new rules and ways are not yet fully established and new ideas seem possible. It can be a time of great innovation and creativity for some. The essential work of the Neutral Zone is grappling with the ending of what came before. If people are able to grieve the losses change requires, they’ll be free to embrace the new beginnings.

New Beginnings — the zone where the intended changes actually get established. The new ways are just starting and excitement and feelings of renewal, joy, and possibility are frequent emotions. Sometimes there’s a sense of fragility around what has just started, too—like holding a newborn baby: most people are exceedingly gentle. It’s the beginning of a new journey, the formation of a new team, the new car or home or a new pair of shoes yet to be broken in by an avid runner. It’s a time that’s full of possibility and wonder— if you’ve been able to truly end what came before.

Navigating transition

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start…” — T.S. Eliot

The problem with the threshold view of change is that it doesn’t allow people to appropriately work through the losses that change requires.

The doorway that separates the old and the new is just as easy to slip back through when the new seems too hard, uncomfortable, or unfamiliar.

This is why some leaders point to provocative stories like when Cortés “burned the ships” or in any number of ways utterly destroyed what came before. The idea is to make it impossible to go backward. The future is forward, and it’s the only way we can go. No turning back.

The principle of a “burning platform” is a slightly more palatable version of this same thinking. Identifying (or for some creating) a burning platform generates urgency for change. It’s a binary choice. Risk the possibility of death or face certain death. Which would you choose?

The term comes from the story of a man who survived an oil drilling platform disaster in 1988. He jumped 15 stories in the dark to the ocean below as oil was surfacing and he knew he would only have 20 minutes to be rescued. The alternative was certain death if he stayed on the burning platform.

When used in business to advocate for change it forces a binary choice and can easily conflate truly urgent changes with less important changes that can overwhelm people.

Essentials of change

In order to communicate change, extreme clarity is needed. The reasons for change must be clearly communicated. The need for change isn’t always negative. While problems and pain often contribute to a need for change, opportunities can also create reasons to change.

Considering urgency, priorities, and the capacity for change are all important factors when leading change.

  1. Why change is needed — identify context for change.
  2. What must change — identify what’s ending and what will begin.
  3. Who is affected by the change — as specifically as possible identify everyone who will be impacted by the change.

Transition focuses on how change happens

How people navigate their way to new beginnings is by acknowledging and grieving what is being lost. They must make an end in order to make a beginning.

ENDINGS — Losing and letting go. Identify what’s being lost for each person uniquely, and look for ways to make a clean break from the past.

When first encountering change, we face emotions of losing familiarity. We may feel comfortable or uncomfortable, but the old ways are ways we know. In order to move toward change, we must accept that something old and familiar is ending.

NEUTRAL ZONE — Danger and opportunity. Generate quick successes. Reassure those on the journey. Help people move at their own pace — even if it’s slow. Old attitudes, behaviors, and practices must die and new ones be created if true change is to happen.

We’ve accepted the loss and are now between the old and new. This stage is full of confusion, uncertainty, and impatience. We may experience low morale or motivation, anxiousness, and resistance toward the change — and so may those around us.

This is the stage with the most risk of getting lost, hurt, spinning out, or feeling we have no impact or control.

It’s also a time where creativity and innovation can flourish because the old constraints are gone and the new haven’t yet solidified.

NEW BEGINNINGS — Acceptance and new energy. We begin to live into the new changes. Behaviors include fresh energy, inspiration, openness to new ideas and commitment to the vision.

Having understood the losses and let go of the past, and having navigated the Neutral Zone, we’re ready to embrace the new changes.

Ideas that emerged in the Neutral Zone begin to gain momentum and opportunities and possibilities show up. Commitment and buy-in are characteristics of this stage and the changes envisioned at the start can really take off.

Steps for leading through transitions

  1. Identify and communicate what’s ending.
  2. Identify and communicate what’s beginning.
  3. Be extremely clear about why this change is needed.
  4. Identify who’s affected and what is being lost for each person/group affected.
  5. Create a plan for navigating the Neutral Zone, monitor progress, and help others move toward the change at their own pace. Celebrate quick wins.
  6. Identify what will demonstrate that the change has been successfully adopted, and clearly mark that moment.

Stages in the Neutral Zone

  1. Awareness — people are aware that change will take place, and how it will affect them.
  2. Understanding — people comprehend the nature, reasons, and intent of the change.
  3. Support & buy-in — people have a positive personal perception and disposition toward the change.
  4. Commitment & action — people invest resources, time, and energy, and lead others toward the change.
  5. Advocacy & ownership — people embrace and demonstrate adoption of the change.

Monitor how people are progressing through the transition, and for each stage above, answer the question “How will we help those affected move toward the next stage?”

Where do we go from here?

With each change, whether large or small, take it as an opportunity to practice navigating transitions. Focus on the “shape” of change by marking what’s ending, working through the losses in the neutral zone, and ultimately embracing the possibilities and energy of new beginnings.

Please comment if you have stories of change and transition, or have additional insights, clarifications, or encouragements to others navigating change.

REVISION NOTE: An earlier version of this article was published here years ago and since then I have worked for several for profit businesses and startups in the technology sector. These experiences only confirmed that the lessons derived during my time with the global nonprofit can apply widely.

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Jase Miller

Navigating complexity. 🏉 Poet collaborating for a bold beautiful creative future via leadership, design thinking, UX, and Product Management. ⚡️