When You Have to Rock the Boat: Managing Transitions

Change is hard. It is often the harbinger of stress, confusion, aimlessness, and at its worst – anarchy amongst employees. Change can also be a life-giver, a refresh button, a savior to a dying organization, and the only way back to success or even functionality. The outcomes of organizational transitions or changes are completely saddled with the management of those transitions (and yes, also the type of transition that’s happening).

For finance teams transforming from historians to futurists, remarkable change is upon us. Our success depends on our ability manage this change.

Whatever the outcomes may be, they’re unavoidable and the conversation about managing change effectively is one worth having.

So what kind of change are we talking about? Obviously there are countless types of transitions and all of them have their own nuances, but there are a few we see more frequently. We’ll put them into two not-so-formal categories: “the boat is rocked” or “the bottom drops out”.

A “boat is rocked” transition might be something like a new product launch, a new assignment, new responsibility (external or person), finance transformation or a new policy. It’s something that may significantly shift the daily workings of an organization, but not its fundamental mission or purpose. A “bottom drops out” transition is one where employees may feel like their workplace has been hijacked and that whatever transition has ensued has shifted the culture or purpose of the organization – things like a company buy-out or merger, owner retiring and new management taking over, or a new person running a department.

These types of transitions are inevitable, but they’re often handled poorly.

As mentioned before, there are a few potential outcomes of transition in an organization. They go smoothly, they are really bad, or they’re somewhere in between. A smooth transition is signaled by good communication, clarity of expectations & accountability, good progress measurement, ability to adjust as needed, and there is a clear future outlined. A bad transition often results from conflicting decisions, lack of clarity and trust, a feeling of instability, poor communication and personal agendas at work (just to name a few). Neutral transitions are a mix of both – some things work, some don’t. Most organizations probably land in that category and have a bent towards either a more negative or positive process of transition.

So how do you do it well? Here are 10 steps toward effective change management that we hope will encourage and enable you to enter in to your transition with more confidence.

  1. Identify your ideal outcome. By defining your ultimate goal or ending point and articulating it clearly throughout the organization, you will have a much better chance of successfully navigating your transition.
  2. Be obnoxiously clear on roles and responsibilities. People who feel unsure of their purpose or measurements of accountability will quickly end up on the road to discouragement and ineffectiveness. Those individuals become detractors to forward momentum. Enlist “champions” that are ready to run toward the vision with you. Those individuals can help explain the vision of the transition, even field questions and concerns.
  3. Establish a strong communication plan. Strategic and sensitive, but clear communication to the right people at the right time is the linchpin to a smooth, positive transition.
  4. Measure your progress. Establishing milestones and measures of success are essential to know if your ship is heading to the right harbor or not. You may know what the destination is but without the compass and map to tell you where you really are it is likely that you will not arrive where you had hoped.
  5. Be transparent. Be as open and forthcoming as you can with your workforce that change is coming, even if you’re not ready to give all the details. Your people will be more likely to feel respected and that they’re a part of the process, not a victim of it.
  6. Prioritize recognition and celebration. As the transition is rolling out, create opportunities to acknowledge “wins” and also blow off steam. People need to feel especially “seen” and validated in a time when things feel uncertain.
  7. Continually revisit not only the goal of the transition, but also the mission of the company. It will be an anchoring force that will help everyone stay on track and motivated.
  8. Create space for your people to process. As much as is possible and realistic, give your people the opportunity to process and talk through their experience as they navigate the change, both in team and one-on-one settings.
  9. Try to avoid compound transitions. Sometimes you can’t help but take your company through a lot of significant changes at once, but if you have the choice – don’t compound them.
  10. Enlist help. If you know you are facing an imminent “bottom drops out” transition, we recommend pulling in extra support to make sure the right plan is in place to roll out the change.

As much as it feels like transitions happen to us, we do have a lot of control as to whether they’re effective or not. Whether the change you are facing is simply rocking the boat, or if the bottom is dropping out and you’re in survival mode, be intentional about how you enter into the process of managing transition. In change, you have the powerful opportunity to guide your organization to incredible new successes and potential realized. Go about it with purpose.


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