Transitional Approach to Change

Organizations, Management of Change and Ethical Dilemmas

A brief outline of the concepts in the transitional approach to the management of change.  [quite a bit of this is summarised from Ambrose, A. Key Concepts of the Transitional Approach to Managing Change,  in Lisl Klein, ed. [1989], Working With Organizations, Kestrel Print, Loxwood, West Sussex.] Then, my thoughts follow as I believe this approach also has impact on the ethical dilemmas which appear as change progresses. I would also say that the paradigm shift created means the change is not just another surface reform, so that institutional social problems, like racism, sexism, disablism, etc etc do not remain under the surface, buried in the institutional structures.

The Transitional Approach

A paradigm shift can occur in organizations when management recognizes how personal and interpersonal values, attitudes and engagements make impact on the purposes strategies and plans which are essential aspects of organizational life and change.

The transitional approach to the management of change is a way of thinking. That is, the transition is in mind as much as in the external context. The approach acknowledges each person, a recognition of the whole self of each person, the differences each brings and the commonality or otherwise of issues regarded as central in the organization and its need for change. The approach supposes that each of us has an “organization in the mind” and that we see the external organization through the lens of this one, the one in the mind. The “transition”, like Winnicott’s “transitional object” the child’s teddy, is both ‘me’ and ‘not-me’, it is inextricably imbued with things which cross the boundaries of self and perception and what actually is.

Besides this over-arching concept of “organization in the mind” the following concepts help identify aspects of the approach, and all are necessary, entwined together:

  • Development potential: Difference will exist in the extent to which individuals are ready to change, and the ways in which they are able to change.
  • Open-system perspective: That is, the organization is not closed, nor made up of fully separable parts, but is exposed to uncertainty and unpredictability in the wider environment, and to internal confusions and conflations, as well as inter-dependencies.
  • Problem toleration: A consequence of adopting an open-system perspective, is that ‘change-agents’ are faced with complexity and uncertainty, so they will be subject to anxieties, confusions and dissonance as they assess the implications of change.
  • Potential space: Innovative thinking is akin to play, so potential space is the ‘play’ space in the mind. Ownership of ideas or imagination etc is not an issue, instead, the varieties of freedom and constraints allowed range through lateral and logical thinking, and produce new meanings and new patterns in the mind, before an objective is identified.
  • Transitional learning: Like play, this is active not passive, as one is not shown what to do. It is however more than just experimentation as it contains the idea of ‘working through’ that is, at each step, consequences and effects on the real space, outside of the mind-space, are also held in mind. The ‘game’ becomes more complex as learning proceeds. In this respect it is different from trial and error, or design process methods of reaching a solution.
  • Double task: If the work of organizations, that is many people, and the work of individuals, are both to flourish and be effective in the long-term, then ‘the work’ can be conceived of as two intertwined and interlocking tasks, like a double helix. The double task looks at the wood and the trees and the whole, which is more than either.
  • Transitional space: Notice that if this is not both sanctioned within the system and provided for, with e.g. time, or place, and possibly facilitation, minds have real dicfficulty in changing. Imagine how the mind of a child is hurt when a parent throws away the teddy bear, rather than knowing the child will at some time replace it by her own developmental growth as opportunities open.
  • Transformational situation: This is the direct correlate of the ‘transitional object’ in the early life of an infant. In an organization, the transformation may not come about even when transitional space is provided as participants may not know how to engage with transitional learning; indeed may seek other more traditional engagements. The transformational situation changes the boundaries, or lifts taboos, in a way in which security is maintained. It may be likened to a catalyst, and is in some sense similar as it is a temporary enabling situation, which is seen insightfully, so that defensive or traditional ‘log-jams’ can be dispersed. Then, new forms of interaction will be initiated by the participants themselves and transitional learning can happen.

This transitional approach to change is an intervention of a peculiar kind. It does not impose the change, nor does it attempt to meet the problems of a change head-on. Instead, it works with the realization that each and every person, and each and every part of the system, are, as living parts of the system both experiencing ‘issues’ as themselves, and as responders to the system they are in. It could be said that everyone has a “double task” and some are better placed to work through this, by chance of the position they happen to be in, as well as by personal capacity for reflection. Attention and insight regarding how each issue belongs to the system within which individual(s) experience it, and how each individual has effect on the system through their response will create the conditions within which an evolution to a different kind of system occurs.

Ethical Dilemmas

As change progresses, ethical dilemmas are experienced in which the characteristic of the dilemma is that all choices appear to have “rightness”, or deep value, yet it appears that these choices preclude each other. There are four classic paradigms of such Right/Right dilemmas in which the choice to be made does not centre on an analysis of “right” versus “wrong” where choosing is simple if the analysis is well done. Right/right dilemmas are paradoxes and can be paralysing. Some can turn into “double bind” where any action brings loss. Consider:

  • Individual versus community or group – instanced by examples where the needs of particular individuals are in conflict with the needs of other ‘stakeholders’.
  • Truth versus loyalty – as for example when the desire for open and free communication is clearly at odds with issues of confidentiality and privacy
  • Justice versus mercy – as when the need of a victim cannot be reconciled with the hope that the perpetrator of harm could be enabled to learn for the future
  • Short-term versus long-term – this can apply in relation to each of the above, but is often particularly relevant when considering ecological issues

The transitional approach to managing change provides a means by which these paradoxical dilemmas can be held. Instead of reaching toward the “successful outcome”, the management of “failure” is part of the transitional process.  In other words, in transition, the effects of the point of view not chosen can be taken in. There is room for contradiction and disappointment to be experienced, even grief or resentment, as feelings are worked through. The child gives up the teddy bear when she learns to play with princess dolls or skateboards. Development is more interesting, better fun and learning is just as good a place to be when need for transitional space is granted. The final outcome contains more of the whole, of people who are lively and eager to engage.

Yes I know that last sentence is idealistic, but the probability of a successful flourishing shift taking place is a lot higher than when change is assumed to be possible through only rational persuasion, or through stick and carrot types of behavioural rewards. Transitional change pays attention to human values like ethics and justice. These are not incompatible with other aims, such as profit or economic viability. Though more mercenary motives may be modified, they do not disappear. The transitional approach is not an ideology, nor is it an idealists dream. It is a process, using situated knowledge, in real contexts, affected by and affecting real people.

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