A lesson in change management


Much of the press focus over the election of Barack Obama to US president, has rightly, been the "hope for change" that his new policies will bring. But for managers, there has also been a great lesson to learn from the-lead up to the inauguration: the smooth transition of power from the outgoing to the incoming president.

This is one change management initiative that seems to have succeeded where so many fail.

In his book "The Dance Of Change" (1999), Peter Senge stated that "two-thirds of Total Quality Management programs fail, and reengineering initiatives fail 70% of the time." David Miller, writing in the Journal of Change Management in 2002, cited the same figure when he wrote that "change initiatives crucial to organizational success fail 70% of the time."

So why has this change worked so smoothly?

There are two reasons. Firstly, both men have been willing and open to share information and engage in meaningful dialogue about the transition of power and the transition phase. But over and above that, there was evidently a "Transition Management Plan" put in place that was backed and followed through by both Bush and Obama.

"It isn't the changes that do you in, it's the transitions." This opening line in William Bridges' best selling Managing Transitions sums up the root cause of most change management failures. As Bridges suggests, change is external, whereas transition is internal and is more of a psychological state.

With so much that can go wrong, it could all have been very different for Bush and Obama.

For example, it could be natural for the outgoing president to perhaps feel some resentment or apprehension about the changes the new man will bring. And so he may not be as forthcoming as he ought to be. For the new man, who perhaps sees many of the old policies as inept, there could be the unwillingness to discuss new policy implementation issues. And of course, there's always the bogies of past loyalties and egos that may get in the way of effective transition management.

Instead, both opted for op-operation. Bush should be given a lot of kudos for his transition initiative. Long before the election was over, he formed a "transition council" headed by his chief of staff Josh Bolten. Their aim was to remove many of the usual obstacles and foster cooperation and harmony.

Of course, we are all probably more familiar with the workings of Obama's transition team and their ability to manage the challenges over this three-month transition period.

Although Bush and Obama differ fundamentally on many policy and philosophical issues, it was particularly evident that they had a good working relationship over the transition period. The success of this can be put down to their willingness to be open and their excellent transition management.

So what is the message from this experience for managers faced with implementing change?

Make sure you have both a change management plan (i.e. how the new policies, systems, structures etc.) will work once the change is implemented, and a transition management plan to manage the interim or lead-up period between the old and the new.

This transition plan must address:

  • How are we going to get from where we are now, to where we want to be (the transition period)?
  • A schedule of who (and when) people will receive information; what training and support they will need to make the transition
  • The nature and timing of key events that mark the transition
  • The personal changes that will occur with the people (e.g. who will lose/gain what and how these will be managed)

This transition plan must be laid out in great detail, with timings, events, people, and places that will be involved in moving from the old to the new.

When developing your transition plan, keep in mind one of the key points William Bridges made, namely that there is a major difference between a change management plan and a transition management plan.

"A change management plan starts with the outcome and then works backward, step by step . . . A transition management plan . . . starts with where people are now and then works forward, step by step, through the process of leaving the past behind, getting through the wilderness and profiting from it, and emerging with new attitudes, behaviors and identity."

And also keep in mind one of the most important parts of the transition – the celebration of moving from the old to the new. Who will forget the pageantry and hype of Obama's inauguration?

As a change management aficionado, I will also have long memories of Obama, Biden and their wives waving a fond farewell to the outgoing president as he was flown away by helicopter. Transition complete. Now for the change.

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About The Author

Bob Selden
Bob Selden

Bob Selden is MD of the Australian National Learning Institute and author of What To Do When You Become The Boss. He has been a boss many times over. He's also worked for many. Some of these relationships have been fantastic and some did not work as well as they might have.

Older Comments

Great points Bob, but there is one little additional advantage this transition has- it's legally mandated. Many of the key players automatically lose their jobs (removing political appointees is a whole lot easier when it's actually, well, political) and the remainder would like to keep them so they're falling in line.

Oh, and when enough people are fed up with the way things are they'll buy into the change easier. I'm just suspecting that might be the case here. Great work as always. Keep it up, brother.

Wayne Turmel Frozen Chicago