Change Management

New Beginning – Phase 3 of Transitions

Finally (after FAR TOO LONG in the neutral zone!), a new beginning emerges. It can be a “Eureka!” moment, or so slow that you don’t even detect it until it’s underway and you look back and see the pattern. Or it can be somewhere between those two extremes. This process is equally true for groups as well as individuals.

A new beginning is the third and final phase of a transition, which is the emotional adjustment to an external change. The first phase is letting go of the old; the second phase is the “neutral zone” (these are explained in greater detail in prior blogs). One very important point to remember: these 3 phases are NOT through sequential, one pass through and you’re done. They overlap and can iterate. A person can have twinges of letting go even after they have discovered their new beginning, or they can doubt that the new beginning is right for them (neutral zone).

If you have done the difficult work of the neutral zone, a new beginning is just that. It is a new way of being, a new way of doing, a new identity. When I was promoted from programmer/analyst to manager of programmer/analysts, it took me a while to get used to being a manager – to the expectations, the rhythm of the new position. Turns out I really enjoyed managing more than programming. I tried programming again a few years later just to see if I still could. I could, but I no longer enjoyed it.

One hallmark of a new beginning is the way it “just feels right.” Typical comments include, “This was just meant to be,” and “It is so obvious! Why didn’t we see this before?” A new beginning creates new energy and excitement. A new beginning opens up new possibilities, new ways of accomplishing things. It can reflect new values, a new understanding about how the world works. A profound new beginning is a life-changing experience – a person or group does not want to return to the old way ever again!

Sometimes one new beginning is the stepping stone to others, a first step on a pathway of continued growth and contribution, of being more authentic to who you are being called to be.

However, if you have not done the necessary work in the neutral zone, if you have not had the courage and patience to endure the uncertainty and lack of productivity that characterizes the neutral zone, the new beginning might be a dead end, or the old situation with a new face. The neutral zone is the price to be paid for a good new beginning.

What has been your experience with new beginnings?

Gary Langenwalter


Neutral Zone – Phase 2 of Transitions

Confused! Rudderless! No sense of purpose! Can’t do (or remember) anything! That’s how the Neutral Zone feels. The neutral zone occurs after an ending, a letting go. Neutral zones run on their own time – one cannot predict when (or how) they will be replaced by a new beginning. However, neutral zones are absolutely required to have a successful transition – successfully leaving an old way of being behind and embracing a new one.

The neutral zone can be understood in 3 different ways. It can be a time of:

1. Emotional reorganization – one’s psyche is busy re-examining all past experiences, knowledge, feelings, etc., and trying to come up with a different way to organize them, because the old way of organizing, of “being”, is now gone. So most of one’s energy, or bandwidth in computer terms, is going to this reorganization. That means there is not as much available to focus on anything else.

2. Inner healing – healing from whatever loss was incurred in the letting go. The deeper the loss, the deeper the healing required.

3. Re-tooling – trying new things, developing new capabilities, getting ready for whatever new beginning will eventually occur.

All ancient cultures have stories of a hero(ine) leaving a place of certainty and going on a journey into the unknown – wandering through a wilderness, discovering friends and foes, learning who he/she is through those experiences. They eventually emerge as a more powerful being. Christian tradition contains two obvious examples of this: 1) Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness as he started his ministry, and 2) after Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday (ending), on Holy Saturday the disciples were utterly lost, not knowing what to do or where they would go (neutral zone). Jewish tradition has three: 1) Abraham leaving Ur and journeying to a new place (he didn’t know where), 2) Joseph being sold into Egypt and undergoing tribulation there, and 3) the Israelites wandering in the wilderness for 40 years after they leave Egypt.

One excellent analogy for the neutral zone is a lobster or crab – after they have outgrown their old shell and shed it, they hide under a rock for a few days until their new shell hardens. During that waiting period, they are much more vulnerable. That’s equally true of a person in the neutral zone – they are much more vulnerable. Here are 5 ideas for coping with being in the neutral zone:

1. Recognize that it is natural, and normal. I first learned about neutral zones when I was in the middle of one. I was so relieved to understand that this is a normal process for human growth.

2. Let go of as much expectation as possible – allow yourself time to wander, to wonder, to do nothing. Allow yourself to make mistakes, to be distracted. Pretend you’re taking a medication that warns “may cause drowsiness – do not operate heavy machinery”. Refrain, where possible, from making irrevocable large decisions.

3. Be gentle with yourself, and deliberately choose to be around people and in environments that will support you during this time. Likewise, intentionally avoid people and environments that require more than you can currently give.

4. Have the courage to remain in the neutral zone until the new beginning does occur (and yes, it does take courage). Think of other times in your life when you’ve been in a neutral zone, and remember that a new beginning occurred each time. Therefore, a new beginning will occur for this one as well. The neutral zone can be viewed as a faith journey. Trying to force the neutral zone to end before its time is naturally up can be very harmful.

a. One can try to go back to the “old way” – forsaking the growth and blessings that the new (as yet undiscovered) way will provide.

b. One can forcefully create a new beginning, but it won’t be the one that “should” occur, and it probably won’t work very well.

5. Journal, so you can learn from your journey and share your journey with others.

The motto for a neutral zone: “This, too, will pass. That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

What additional ideas would you like to share with me? What has worked best for you when you’ve been in a neutral zone? What have you tried that didn’t work so well?

Next week’s blog: New Beginnings

Gary Langenwalter

Letting Go – the 1st phase of transition

Last week I outlined the 3 phases of transition: 1) Letting Go, 2) the Neutral Zone, and 3) New Beginnings. These phases are overlapping and sometimes iterative, depending on the depth of attachment to the situation/identity which is being left behind.

Letting go has 2 major aspects: loss and uncertainty:

1. Loss. A loss of what was, and what could have been. A closing of a door, precluding any opportunity to rectify mistakes, to offer a brilliant insight, to… Where there has been serious attachment, the person or group can go through the 5 stages of grief identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: 1 denial, 2) anger, 3) bargaining, 4) depression, and 5) acceptance. Example – the workers at the Carrier plant in Indiana who have been told that their jobs are being off-shored.

Even when the change is “good”, such as a promotion, a person or group still needs to let go of the old. This can sometimes be more difficult, because the person or group might not understand why they are having mixed feelings about the new opportunity.

Unfortunately, our culture tends to view people and groups as resources to be deployed, ignoring the psychological processes necessary to adapt to change. Compounding the difficulty, each individual, each group, grieves and lets go differently.

2. Uncertainty. As a person or group lets go of the old, they face uncertainty about what to do in their new capacity. Questions and doubts abound and multiply. How will they learn to function in this new role? Will they succeed? There can be an underlying fear of failure. One example is people adapting to a new information system – they have to use the new system, which they are not yet expert at. Facing uncertainty requires courage; it is far easier to cling to the old way.

If a person or group does not let go emotionally, they remain stuck in the past and compromise their ability to function effectively.

Some ways to let go include:

· Honoring each other

· Celebrating accomplishments and relationships

o Most humorous experiences (“Remember when that experiment caught on fire?”)

· Identifying and recording “lessons learned”

· Creating the space for members to commit to future mutual support and/or communication

· Allowing time to grieve, and allowing each person to grieve in their own way

· Talking things out with a trusted co-worker, friend, or professional (e.g. life coach, LCSW, pastor…)

What have you learned about letting go, either by personal experience or by watching others? What has helped you let go? What has hindered the process?

Next week I’ll cover the Neutral Zone.

Gary Langenwalter

3 Phases of Change – Transitions

There are many models of change, including Kotter’s 8 steps and ADKAR. But the one I like best comes from Bill Bridges, Ph.D. Bridges differentiates between the external change (for example, a promotion, or replacing an old low-tech product line with a new high-tech one, or getting married) and what he calls a “transition” – the internal alignment to that external change. That alignment process, which works for groups and individuals, has three overlapping, and sometimes repeated, phases:

1. Ending

2. Neutral Zone

3. New Beginning.

Let’s explore each of these in more detail.

1. Ending. An ending is the letting go of the old. Reactions to endings can range from “We thought it would never end!” to “We’ll never let go!” and all points in between. No matter the reaction, the ending has to occur before much else can happen. If it doesn’t, people remain stuck in the past. I’ll cover Endings in more depth next week.

2. Neutral Zone. The Neutral Zone is uncertainty on steroids. A person or group in a neutral zone can’t seem to focus on much of anything. They have trouble doing routine tasks and have no energy. This is because their old organizing principle has ended but the new one has not yet formed. Being in the neutral zone requires courage and compassion, because people are typically uncomfortable with uncertainty. I’ll cover Neutral Zone in more depth in 2 weeks.

3. New Beginning. This is when the new foundation/organizing principles become clear. This can occur in a flash of inspiration, or so slowly that the person or group doesn’t even know it’s happening until they look back a while later. Energy and focus and abilities return. I’ll cover New Beginnings in 3 weeks.

When a person or group is moving through a transition, a wise leader lowers expectations of productivity and creativity, and increases the allowance for mistakes. Otherwise, transitions can cause extreme stress to groups and individuals, with concomitant cost to the organizations.

I’d enjoy hearing about transitions that you’ve been through.

Gary Langenwalter

Handling Setbacks

Setbacks are the direct result of trying to make a difference. The bumper sticker “Well-behaved women seldom make history” is equally true for well-behaved men. The bigger your goals, the bigger the game that you’re playing, the bigger the setbacks you’ll experience.

So what do you do when your idea gets shot down?

How do you get the inner strength to pick up the pieces and keep on keeping on?

Simplistic answer: by taking the long view, and realizing that you’re not going to win every contest of wills.

Deeper answer: by re-grounding yourself in your “why”. Why, at the deepest level, are you trying to reach your goal? Your answer to that question is your call – the fundamental reason you get up in the morning and keep on trying. Frederick Buechner said, “Your call is where your deepest gladness meets the world’s greatest need.” And since the world has so many great needs, I suggest that your call comes from your deepest gladness. What is it that you can’t stop doing? What do you keep on doing, no matter what? Have you ever asked yourself why you do it? That’s your call, your “why”.

I create puns (a few of which are actually pretty decent!) and interject humor frequently. Why? Because I want the world to be a joyful place, where people laugh and get creative. My call is for everybody to have a rich, full, rewarding life, and to treat each other with respect.

So, what’s your call? And how are you living that out day to day? (Because that’s the only place you’ll get to make it real – in your day-to-day life.) I’d truly enjoy hearing from you. Please e-mail me your call, and how you live it, at gary. I promise to respect your privacy, and if you’d like to engage in a dialogue, I’ll be glad to respond.

May your holiday season be joyous.

Gary Langenwalter

Gary Langenwalter

Portland Consulting Group

Coaching . Wisdom . Results



Fear can be good. Fear of predators kept our early ancestors alive. Fear of future problems keeps people from signing contracts that could create financial difficulty. However (and you knew this was coming), fear can also stop people from moving forward when it would be to their advantage to do so.

True story: a division of a large company was instructed to implement a new software system to increase production. This was going to add more workload to two departments. Corporate tried to help the division rebalance workloads, and supplied training and new procedures. Unfortunately, despite the fact that two sister divisions had already implemented the new software successfully, irrational fear of the new system took root during the months that preceded the implementation. The closer the go-live date got, the more afraid people became. With less than a month to go, they put it off for two weeks, then for another week. People said, “We’re not ready… We haven’t been trained enough… We need more people…” And some mid-level leaders said, “We’re supporting our people. They’re not ready.” The division’s CEO finally said, “We’re going live. We’ll work things out.” So they went live, with extensive on-site corporate support during the first week. Many of the people were actually relieved, because the uncertainty was finally over and the wheels had not fallen off. But at the end of the week when nothing bad had happened (yet!), one of the senior clerks opined, “This is like being on the beach after an earthquake. Just before the tsunami hits, everything is very calm, then the water draws way out to sea…” And this was duly repeated throughout the division, re-kindling the fear.

Yes, there were hiccups as the division adjusted to the new system. Like all systems, it was not perfect. But the fear was counterproductive; it caused great angst and hurt morale unnecessarily. FEAR can be a mnemonic for False Evidence Appearing Real. And that’s what it was in this case. In this case, the best path forward was implementing the system, because more delays would have only increased the fear.

So how does your organization deal with fear?

Gary Langenwalter

Walking the Tightrope

Leaders walk a tightrope – balancing the need for change against the willingness and ability of the organization to implement those changes successfully.

Since “change imposed is change opposed”, how can a leader bring change into their organization? Especially if the change will add even more load to key individuals who are already stressed out. If the leader insists on implementing the change, the best people might leave, causing their work to be split among the survivors who already feel overloaded, thereby increasing the probability that they might leave, too.

One approach is:

· Focus on the vision and mission of the organization. If the vision and mission is to use the organization’s products and service to help make a better world for our children, it is one (major) reason why the employees work there. Seeing how the proposed change will help them accomplish their mission will be an incentive to implement the change. However, if the vision and mission is to maximize return to the shareholders, this tactic will probably not be very effective. (Incidentally, contrary to what most people believe, data conclusively show that for-profit companies that honor people and respect the planet deliver substantially higher returns to investors. Thus, for-profit companies can have vision and mission statements that truly engage their workforce.)

· Ask what the individual is currently doing that can be 1) discontinued, or 2) offloaded to another person. Discontinuing is the better alternative, because then the total workload actually diminishes. Value Stream Mapping is a Lean tool that can help an organization see what adds value to the customer (and should be continued), and what does not add value to the customer (and therefore is a candidate for discontinuation). Offloading is less desirable because it merely shifts the work, and because most people (including the “offloadee”) have little or no slack in their workday.

This approach works because it honors the people and works with them. It’s the antithesis of the corporate version of the Golden Rule – “The person with the gold makes the rules!” This approach is better for the long term than forcing change, because forcing change frays the underlying relationship and goodwill, which is the foundation upon which all organizations operate.

What do you think? I’d enjoy your feedback, or, even better, an e-mail exchange (gary) or phone call (971-221-8155)

Gary Langenwalter

Getting Management to Support Change

How do you get management to support change? At the risk of being overly simplistic, it starts with WIFM — What’s In It For Me? What are their goals? Of course, different leaders will have different goals, based on their function. The CFO tends to focus on reducing expenses and reducing risk. The VP of Sales and Marketing wants to increase revenue and/or market share. The VP of Operations wants to improve operating performance, whatever that means for their industry. And the CEO is probably focused on return to owners/shareholders.

So how will your change help them accomplish their goals? If you can bring hard data, they’ll be more apt to listen. Any numbers you present need to survive the “x2” test – corporate leaders automatically cut the proposed benefits in half and multiply the proposed expenses by 2 in their heads, because people proposing ideas tend to overstate the benefits and understate the costs. Your idea needs to still look good after they do that math.

Secondly, if you can have a low-cost, low-risk, quick-results trial run, they’ll be more likely to say yes. “Let 2 people try this, no more than 2 hours per week, for a month; we’ll need $500 for training” is much more attractive than “We’ll need to invest $250,000 to get started; we hope to have the first results in a year.”

Unfortunately, most leaders, and most staff, are overwhelmed with too many top priorities already. People are stretched so thin that they are not able to take on one more project, no matter how compelling your idea is. So your idea has to be more compelling than the next one in line, which will be started when one of the current projects gets finished, unless you can figure out how to not require any time from people in the organization.

Gary Langenwalter