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Innovation Ahead: Smoothing the Transition

So you’ve got the best new idea in the world: now what?

Even if you really think it is the best idea in the world, you can hardly expect your employees or colleagues to exhibit the same level of excitement: innovation means change, and change, for most people, means anxiety. After all, change can be difficult, disrupting your team’s established order and promising a confrontation with perhaps the biggest of all human fears: the unknown. While your initial impulse may be to judge—or even to shut out—those who put up resistance to your innovative new plan, you’ll benefit by taking a few minutes to consider their position: why they resist, how that resistance may manifest, and what you can do to overcome.

Among the major reasons for resisting innovation: lack of trust in those proposing the innovation, a need for control, prior negative experience with change, fear of personal failure, a belief in the status quo, a perceived threat to the organization’s values, and a simple resentment of interference.

The first step is to consider the difference between
change and transition.

But how do you know if an employee or colleague is actually resistant to innovation? The outward signs can be more subtle than you think—not everyone wants to voice their objections in a group meeting or over e-mail. Rather, you may see decreased commitment, lack of motivation, absenteeism or increased lateness, or covert underperformance in individuals; at the group level, you might witness hostility toward those initiating the innovation, increased inter-group conflict, declared underperformance, or groups pursuing their own agendas.

To overcome that resistance and make innovation implementation a success, it is critical to help your people transition from known state to new state.

Change versus Transition

The first step is to consider the difference between change and transition: change is situational, brought about by the new policy, program, or process. Transition, on the other hand, is the psychological process that people go through to come to terms with a new situation. The transition process involves three stages: the endings stage, the neutral zone, and the beginnings stage.

Transition Stages

No one goes through
atransition at the
same pace.

The next step is to understand those stages, as outlined in the CRM Learning production “Taking Charge of Change” (2004):

In the ending stage, one steps away from a known, stable situation into an unknown situation. At this stage, it is critical to acknowledge the specific things one needs to let go of, and to recognize that loss.

Once in the neutral zone, a person feels adrift, without solid orientation: the old world may be gone, but the new world has not yet fully materialized. This can lead to frustration, confusion, and fear.

When one reaches the beginning stage, it means he or she feels comfortable in the new situation and can enjoy the benefits of innovation.

Implementation Strategy

Though it sounds fairly straightforward, no one goes through a transition at the same pace. Once you understand the three stages of transition, however, you’re in an excellent position to help individual team members advance through those stages more efficiently. There are a number of strategies that you can use to help, such as:

Being explicit about what exactly is ending. At the ending stage, a lack of a clear explanation—one that details the innovation in question as well as what it replaces—creates the perfect breeding grounds for gossip, frustration, and anxiety.

Updating those involved on the progress of implementation. Not only does this acknowledge those who might feel isolated in the neutral zone, it helps them accept the level of ambiguity inherent in this part of the process and reminds them it won’t go on forever.

Emphasizing the benefits of innovation. The beginning stage should be a time to focus on the positives of the implemented innovation, to downplay any barriers to further innovation, and seek support for more innovation in the future.

Kristina Jaskyte is an Associate Professor at the School of Social Work and the Institute for Nonprofit Organizations at the University of Georgia in Athens. Her work focuses on innovation in nonprofit as well as government organization, and her current research centers on the role of the board of directors in facilitating innovation.

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