Organisational Change: Marathon or Sprint?

If you’ve ever run a marathon (or indeed watched one) you’ll be familiar with the set-up. Reams of resolute racers congregating behind the starting line, with the faster runners at the front and the slower participants towards the back. The buzzer blast booms out. The faster runners sprint off, quickly making headway, and those behind them gradually pass the start line and begin their own race. This continues until the final competitor crosses the start line. But by that point, this particular competitor is already lagging way behind the leaders, who are, by now, already miles ahead.

It was William Bridges who first envisioned the marathon scenario as a metaphor for organisational change. Like a marathon, which involves the journey of its participants from the start line to the finish line, organisational change involves the organisation’s progression from one state of being to the next. But an organisational change doesn’t just rely on change itself – it relies on transition too.

The terms ‘change’ and ‘transition’ are often intermingled, but Bridges draws an important distinction between them. He defines ‘change’ as the external, physical process from one state to another, and ‘transformation’ as the internal, emotional journey that accompanies it. While a change is happening, not only do we need to progress with the change, we must become emotionally invested in it as well, to give it our complete support. We have to make an emotional transition – from resistance to acceptance.

This emotional transitional journey is mapped out by Bridges’ Change Curve. It divides the change process into three consecutive periods: the ‘Ending, Losing, Letting Go’ stage (when we’re concerned and worried about the change), the ‘Neutral Zone’ (the intermediate period during which resistance evolves into acceptance), and the ‘New Beginning’ (when we accept and advocate the change).

This is where the marathon metaphor comes into play. As with marathons, where the frontrunners will make quick headway on those competing at the back, by the time a change is rolled out, the change leaders will already have become emotionally invested in it. They will have had the time to make the emotional transition. On the flip side of the coin, those less involved in defining the change won’t have had this precious time to transition and leverage their support to the change… and will likely resist it as a result.

Avoiding the Marathon Effect relies on a culture of communication even before the change process begins. It’s crucial to keep employees informed about why it’s necessary, how it will affect them and how it’s going to pan out. Only by encouraging an emotional transition and investment in the change – and not leaving this too late – can productive acceptance of the change be facilitated and the change itself implemented successfully.

PRINT is a useful tool which gives insight into people’s Unconscious Motivators and the reasons why they might resist change. We all have personal (unconscious) reasons why we might be averse to change – and PRINT enables you to identify and overcome these positively and successfully.


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