Project Management and Change Management: The Transition Curve


By: Emily Walsh


As I mentioned in my last post a few weeks ago, Project Management and Change Management are both practices that involve managing people and processes, and they often work hand-in-hand to meet the goals of a project and, more broadly, the goals of an organization.



But as we all know, with change comes uncertainty, and uncertainty often leads to anxiety, confusion, and change resistance. And without ongoing buy-in from members of your project team as well as those impacted by the changes, a project can quickly derail and end-user adoption can fail.


This is why some of the best project managers have developed a deep understanding of change management practices and tools - and use them to their advantage. In today’s post (the second in a series covering my three favorite change management tools), we’ll be spending some time discussing William Bridge’s Transition Model.




This first visual of the Transition Curve is a great diagnostic tool. Where are your team members on the transition curve? I’ve been lucky enough to have worked on project teams where there was a lot of trust and openness, and each month as a team we would openly discuss where each of us were on the transition curve (and, for those of us who were leading and managing teams, where we thought our teams were at).


If you’re leading or project managing complex change efforts and you’ve already built some trust as a team, consider if this type of open discussion with your project team could be beneficial. It’s important to remember that most people have to transition from the feelings associated with “endings”, move through the stress of “exploration”, and eventually open themselves up to “new beginnings” - and sometimes people feel better if they realize that it’s normal to feel some anxiety and confusion, particularly if their colleagues might be feeling the same way.


It’s also important to keep in mind that if you’re leading a large and complex project involving a lot of organizational change (as many technology projects tend to entail…), you and those on those on the team who’ve been involved since the very beginning (when the project was still just a spark of an idea in an executive’s brain!) may be “further along” on the transition journey than others who are newer to the project or just starting to hear about the changes that may impact their work or day-to-day business processes.


Having a clear sense of where people are on the transition curve (endings, explorations, beginnings) can help you think about what types of activities may be most needed and most helpful. Also consider that even people who’ve been on your project team the longest may still experience some setbacks. This is all normal: people move through the transition curve at different rates, and sometimes people can backslide.


So what do you do once you know where someone is on the transition curve? You look at the second visual!




You might be looking at this second image and wondering “is this even different from the first one?”. You’re right - these two visuals look similar. However, this second image provides a guide for how to best support your project team members through the change and transition.

For example, if you know that someone is struggling with the feelings and reactions associated with endings, they need someone to help them handle the loss. Listening and providing empathy and validation is key during this phase.


Similarly, if you see that someone is starting to move from “endings” into “exploration”, you can encourage them by educating them about the changes that are happening. This is the time to provide them with frequent communications and information.


Finally, as someone moves from exploration into acceptance of new beginnings (or acceptance of the coming change), you want to be the cheerleader (or evangelist) who helps them feel engaged and excited about getting involved in the project. Once that alignment is achieved, you can then move into ongoing coaching, which will hopefully help maintain that alignment of vision and mission for your project.


In closing, what I like about this model is that it focuses on adaptive leadership, which is at the heart of good project management. More often than not, the leadership training programs that so many of us have been through focus on “coaching” as the answer to every management challenge or situation. This model, instead, recognizes that coaching has its place, but it’s best used when people are already on the emotional “upswing” of a change initiative. Assessing where people are on the transition curve can prompt you to adapt your leadership and project management style to meet your team members where they are and bring them along, which will ultimately result in a more successful project outcome.