The Impact of Transitions, Ambiguity and Complexity

Understanding and navigating the transition landscape


Copyright © Catherine Hayes & Alan Robertson 2007. All rights reserved

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Surrounded by Transitions

Transitions are challenging for everyone with a part to play in the world of work, particularly leaders.  For organisations, teams and individuals, it is like being in a theatre where the scenery is always being shifted.  This is the nature of the stage on which we are all expected to perform.

Organisations are repeatedly, if not constantly, in transition.  Re-organisations, turn-rounds, start-ups, leaders seeking to implement strategies, re-engineer processes and carry through improvement programmes to secure competitive advantage.

Teams too are seldom still, forming and re-forming as members, leaders and projects come and go.  Assembled to support the launch of new products, rearranged to improve the provision of services, stripped of talent to resource more urgent priorities.  Temporary associations, convened and dissolved.

Individuals are likewise in transition.  Assigned, appointed, rotated, promoted. Co-located, re-located, dis-located.  Called upon to come to terms with the changes in their employers’ circumstances and requirements.  Required to learn new skills and know-how, to take on different responsibilities, and always expected to deliver.

What is a career, if not a string of transitions over time?  Becoming an employee for the first time.  Going through a period of apprenticeship, whether formal or informal.  Acquiring the competence to work with minimal supervision, to recognise what needs to be done without having to be told. Reaching the turning point of having to supervise other people.  Encountering the challenges of how to manage, motivate and develop them.  Learning how to resolve competing demands for resources and attention.  Becoming a leader, having to figure out how to co-ordinate, integrate and create on a bigger scale, nurturing and developing the next generation, handing over and moving on.

Transitions have become such a pervasive feature of contemporary organisational life that it is easy to be blind to their significance.  Unfortunately, and unnecessarily, most transitions go badly, taking longer than expected, falling short of expectations and proving expensive, inefficient and stressful in the process.  They are too wasteful and costly to ignore or to treat as part of the way things are rather than as a leadership challenge that deserves close attention.


The Purpose and Shape of this Paper

The purpose of this paper is to establish a clear picture of how transitions work.  This can be done, because, while each transition is an intensely personal leadership experience, and while they present themselves in a very wide variety of forms, there is a common dynamic at work below the surface. 

We have studied transitions carefully.  Although most transitions go badly, a minority go well.  The contrast is highly informative.  Certain factors that are present in the successful cases can be seen – once you know what to look for.  This paper aims to shed light on the implicit dimensions of transition, ambiguity and complexity that impact the explicit agendas of change.


Common Features of Transitions

Transitions take time. They often provoke anxiety in one form or another.  The process is a mixture of ups and downs.  We would suggest that three deeper themes are also evident.  Transitions present people with three particular challenges: a contextual challenge, an inter-personal challenge and a challenge to the sense-of-self.


The Contextual Challenge

All transitions are to some degree journeys into the unknown.  In short, transitions are the process of movement from the more familiar into the less familiar.  These can be personal transitions such as, joining a different organisation, changing role, getting a new boss, being part of a team that is joined by new member.  It is also true, although less obvious and more commonly overlooked, when the transition is less personal.  Examples of these more indirect, circumstantial transitions include a change in organisational direction, a variation in economic conditions, a quiet technological revolution, a gradual change in customer attitudes or a shift in the quality of a working relationship.

Either way, the implications are the same.  Transitions present an immediate contextual challenge.  For the transitioner it is about making sense of the new context.  What’s going on here?  How does this place work?  How does this differ from where I was before?  What’s my role here?  How do you get stuff done round here?  The problem is that transitions pose these questions implicitly rather than explicitly.  The individual in transition is better served – and better led – when these questions are pursued explicitly.  Otherwise it is difficult to get to grips with the new situation.  Without sufficient contextual understanding the transitioner is left disorientated.  And disorientation slows down any transition.


The Inter-Personal Challenge

Understanding the new context is necessary.  It is not sufficient. We are never just in a work-related context; we are always there for a purpose.  It is not enough to have know-how; we also have to use it to make some particular contribution and to be effective in practice. Nothing exposes this need for skill as well as knowledge quite as quickly as the new relationships and interactions which accompany transitions.  

Transitions change relationships and always present new inter-personal challenges.  Discovering ways of interacting effectively consequently becomes another implicit feature of transitions.  Who do I need to work with here?  What makes this person tick?  What are they concerned about?  What gets their attention?  How do I obtain their co-operation?

The relationship between the transitioner and their own manager is only one of these interactions.  It may be the most obvious.  That does not make it the easiest.  The part played by the individual’s manager in facilitating the transition can vary widely in terms of being active or passive, help or hindrance.

A context with multiple stakeholders presents a complex transition.  More stakeholders means more variety, more complexity, more necessity for the transitioner to have or to develop the range and depth of their inter-personal skills.  Again, this aspect of transitions can be joltingly apparent or trippingly invisible.  Some transitions bring us into contact with a new set of stakeholders and an unfamiliar set of expectations.  Others - for instance when our responsibilities are expanded within the same role - can present us with the much subtler challenge of familiar stakeholders but with new, and sometimes unspoken, expectations.


The Challenge to the Sense-of-Self

It is clear that transitions take time. By definition, transition is a process rather than a single event or a moment. Our observation is that work-related transitions tend to take longer, and often much longer, than expected. Our question therefore is why?

Inevitably it requires time to get on top of the contextual and inter-personal challenges.  Of the challenges implicit in transition these two are relatively apparent. It would be hard not to notice a change of office, title, team or customer, even though it can be harder to uncover the full implications of these changes of context and relationships.  The more insidious challenge is altogether more personal. It is to the one element which transitioners typically expect to remain constant, unchanged and therefore reliable, namely themselves. This is where the most unexpected shocks occur.  The most profound challenge in the course of transition is to the sense-of-self.

We do not enter our transitions as blank slates.  We arrive with our past experience and our ways of doing things, our own particular frames of mind and habits of behaviour.  Naturally, this is the personal resourcefulness that we bring to the task of making sense of a new context and tackling a new set of inter-personal challenges. In effect, we view our new situation through our old lenses.  That’s where the trouble starts.  Where it gets worse is when it becomes apparent that our trusted approaches are not quite working. Because that suggests that we are not coping, that we are not up to the task. And that realisation challenges our sense-of-self.

We simply want to make two points. First, it is perfectly normal to encounter obstacles and to feel stuck at various points in the course of a transition. Secondly, a very common reaction at that point is to start to doubt oneself. Significantly, we notice that fragile self-belief is the single most common issue with which we find ourselves dealing when we are called upon to provide support for people going through a transition.

Of course over-confidence can impede transitions too.  Blind self-belief will get in the way of making sense of a new context.  It will interfere with the development of new and more productive working relationships.  Above all it makes it difficult to tackle the most difficult of the implicit challenges in any transition: the need to develop oneself and one’s ways of thinking and acting.

How am I going about this?  What assumptions am I making?  What am I neglecting here?  What is this situation telling me about me and how I do things?  What other approaches might I explore here?


Personal Traits and Practices that Facilitate Transition

In studying individuals’ transitions, we have found that two traits have a disproportionate impact on the ease or difficulty of the process.  They are tolerance of ambiguity and the disposition to invest in reflective sense-making.

Obviously other characteristics also influence the way in which someone approaches a transition.  For instance, the extrovert will tend to approach it in an outgoing, active manner.  The achievement-oriented will approach it with energy and focus.  The imaginative will approach the challenge creatively. 

How individual transitions are approached and experienced will be coloured in all these - and the many other - ways in which personalities vary.  Our research suggests that these other differences are comparatively superficial.  They affect the manner of transition, rather than whether it takes place.  Tolerance of ambiguity and reflective sense-making, on the other hand, go right to the heart of the implicit challenges posed by the transition process.  Without both of these characteristics, it is difficult to take a transition forward except in a hit-or-miss and often prolonged and stressful way. 


Tolerance of Ambiguity - Why is tolerance of ambiguity so helpful?

As journeys into the unknown present new challenges to be recognised, understood and overcome, transitions invariably involve an increase in ambiguity.  Remember our earlier questions.  What’s going on here? How does this place work?  This ambiguity may be temporary; it may last only until you have made sense of your new organisational role and responsibilities and have satisfactorily figured out how to deal with them.  However, while it lasts, the experience of ambiguity can be confusing, disorientating and disabling.

Some people have much less appetite for ambiguity than others.  Actually, the research evidence suggests that most people have less appetite for ambiguity than others.  It appears that human preferences are quite strongly skewed in this respect.  Somewhere between two thirds and three quarters of us feel a marked preference for certainty.  In other words, relatively few people enjoy uncertainty or ambiguity.  This may seem intuitively obvious.  It is certainly, in view of the statistics, likely to seem normal. 

The implications of this human tendency are important.  It means that most people are going to feel uncomfortable rather than comfortable during the process of transition.  Most people are going to dislike the lack of clarity that accompanies a transition, are going to be to some degree stressed by that lack of clarity.  How the individual responds to this discomfort then becomes critical.

Having a higher rather than a lower tolerance for ambiguity helps because transitions take time.  The ambiguity and uncertainty are seldom quickly resolved.  It takes time to make sense of a new context. It takes time to become skilful and productive in new working relationships. It takes time to face up to the personal development required to adapt. It takes time and it can be a very unsettling time. The longer it takes, the more uncomfortable it tends to feel, the more self-doubt tends to creep in.

Most transitions entail a protracted process of orientation and re-orientation. For the minority of people who have it, a relatively high tolerance of ambiguity is a significant asset during this time. Rather than becoming stressed by the ambiguity, they are able to cope with it, or even to be stimulated by it. 

It is possible to develop greater tolerance of ambiguity both in oneself and in others.  This is one of the leadership and personal skills to which we will return again and again in subsequent chapters on the facilitation of individual, team and organisational transitions.


Reflective Sense-Making practice

Reflective sense-making practice is the second factor that makes transitions easier.  It plays a different and distinctive part in the process.  While tolerance of ambiguity helps people to cope with the experience of being disorientated, it is the application of reflective sense-making that takes people forward through the transition process and enables them to re-orientate themselves.

In our research, a series of psychometric indicators point to the importance of reflective sense-making practice as the engine that drives an individual's transition forward.  It is the most evident personality difference between those comparatively rare individuals, who report that they have found transition relatively straightforward, and the much larger numbers who report that the experience was challenging, difficult or extremely difficult.  So, how do those who invest in reflective sense-making differ from those who do not?  What exactly do they do differently?

For a start they like to solve problems, particularly mental problems. They enjoy challenges that are abstract and conceptual rather than simply tangible.  This helps the process of transition, because entry into a new, unfamiliar and multifaceted context, presents a complex puzzle.  Approaching the challenge in too literal a way, or expecting it to be visible and tangible, has the effect of limiting our thinking; it causes us to over-trust outward appearances and to over-emphasise superficial similarities with past experience.  Thinking more abstractly makes it easier to extract general guidance from specific experiences, enabling learning to be adapted and transferred more readily from one context to another.

Reflective sense-makers also like to look at situations from more than one angle.  They prefer multiple perspectives.  This helps the process of transition, because it means that they don't leap to conclusions, they don't rush into action, they don't fall into the trap – which awaits those whose personalities are more action oriented and impatient for results – of blindly importing their old approaches and imposing them on new and different situations.  The more complex the transition, the more it is a journey into the unknown, the more important it is to invest time and energy into the application of reflective sense-making.  Considering the new context from a variety of different angles enables the reflective learner to make a richer, more comprehensive and, crucially, more reliable sense of it, of how it works and how to intervene successfully in it.

Finally, reflective sense-makers keep the process of learning moving forward.  They do not simply ruminate on the same point over and over.  Their approach is much more dynamic than that.  They look ahead as well as looking around.  They form a reasonably informed view, and then try it out.  Then they reflect on what they have learned from that. This approach helps, because few, if any, transitions in the world of work can be comprehended or carried out at a single glance.  Roles, relationships, projects, all need to be experienced in practice, in action, to be adequately understood.  The process is one of iterative sense making, and more complex the context, the more iterations are likely to be required. 

The practice of reflective sense-making can certainly be developed by individuals, by teams and indeed on an organisational scale.  Furthermore it can, in itself, help to develop higher tolerance of ambiguity.  

In this initial explanation of reflective sense-making practice, we have outlined how it helps to tackle two of the implicit challenges in transition, the contextual and the inter-personal. In those regards it enriches our understanding of what is going on out there. Reflective sense-making practice is even more vital, when it comes to the third challenge. As transition challenges our sense-of-self, we need to revise our understanding of what’s going on in here.  We have to reflect on ourselves, and in particular on our sense of adequacy. And that – by its nature – is a more uncomfortable and unsettling process.

So, here’s a problem. While reflective sense-making practice is the engine for making progress through transition, there is also a hidden gradient beneath the three challenges. The contextual challenge is relatively easy going. The engine has to be worked harder to get over the inter-personal challenge and harder still to deal with the challenge to the sense-of-self. Even a little reflective sense-making skill will help quite a lot with the contextual challenge. The inter- and intra-personal challenges of transition need sharper awareness, more skill and greater commitment to the practice of reflective sense-making.

This is why so many transitions can appear to start well and then stall. The first hurdle is the contextual challenge, and, although it may be demanding, it is the easiest of the three. The subsequent challenges are greater and they test tolerance of ambiguity and reflective sense-making practice more severely.

Which brings us to the issue of the problematic relationship between ambiguity and learning.  And to the pivotal role of the leader. Both are at the core of understanding what makes the difference between easier and harder transitions.


The Pivotal Role of the Leader

Managing the Tension Between Ambiguity and Learning

Our colleague, organisation consultant Kevin Eyre, captured the essence of the problem when he coined the phrase, The Paradox of Ambiguity. The paradox of ambiguity is this: the greater the ambiguity with which we find ourselves confronted, the greater the opportunity open to us to learn; and yet at the same time, the greater the ambiguity, the greater the likelihood that we will be alarmed by it, recoil from it and lose our opportunity to develop.

Transpose this insight into the context of transitions.  A transition presents us with ambiguity, with much that will not immediately make sense: an unfamiliar context, new issues and working relationships, the need to find out how to make ourselves effective in these changed circumstances.  We have already seen that tolerance of ambiguity and reflective learning practice are characteristics which make transitions easier for people.  We have also seen that these characteristics are the exception rather than the rule.  The paradox of ambiguity helps to explain this rarity. As ambiguity rises, the inclination to persist with reflective learning tends to fall.  Reflective sense-making is the best means to work your way forward through ambiguous circumstances, but it is inherently fragile in precisely those circumstances.


This is the fundamental tension that needs to be managed to enable transition to proceed.  We need to tolerate the ambiguity while continuing to use reflective learning practice long enough to arrive at a new and reliable sense of the context and how to be effective in it. This is a big ask. It is particularly difficult given that most people have relatively low tolerance of ambiguity, and given that the organisational, especially the business, environment tends to have limited patience for reflection.

This is where leadership becomes pivotal.  Leaders have not only the best opportunity but also the prime responsibility to create the conditions in which transitions are more likely to succeed. That is why this book is written primarily for those in, and aspiring to, leadership roles.  So what is the essence of the role that the leader has to play to facilitate transitions?

First, it’s about creating a climate of safety that contains the effects of ambiguity. This is not the same as pretending that it isn’t there. It may be not be possible to reduce the ambiguity; it is certainly not helpful to ignore it.  The primary task is to recognise its effects on people and in particular its potentially disruptive impact on reflective sense-making. Then it’s about the leader spinning a second plate simultaneously, by establishing a process to sustain reflective sense-making practice and by channelling people’s different energies and contributions into that process. If the leader succeeds in this double endeavour, it sets up a positive dynamic, a virtuous cycle in which the progress made through reflective sense-making serves to reduce the felt ambiguity. This in turn facilitates the continuation of reflective sense-making practice long enough to arrive at the know-how required to deal with the contextual, inter-personal and personal challenges associated with the transition.



As the focus shifts from the individual transition to the team to the organisation-wide transition – what increases is scale and complexity. The disintegrative pressures provoked by ambiguity increase.  The task of maintaining reflective sense-making practice in these disintegrative contexts becomes more difficult.  The enabling role to be played by the skilful transition leader is, essentially the same.


Transition Blindness

Advocating transition leadership carries an implied critique of current leadership practice. Our intention, is not so much to admonish as to articulate and support. We do not believe that people who take their leadership positions seriously deliberately set out to make transitions harder for the individuals, teams and organisations that work for them. On the other hand, we do believe that leaders, like the rest of us, can get in their own and others’ way without meaning to or realising it. We also believe that this is a very common blind spot for leaders when it comes to transitions. It is another facet of ‘transition blindness.’

There is a reason why people in leadership roles are prone to transition blindness. It is to do with the nature of the managerial mindset, which has two dominant and often mutually reinforcing tendencies: a bias towards control and a bias towards action. Like other default tendencies, these are not a bad thing in their own right. They both serve useful purposes in the world of work. One gets things organised and the other gets things done.  And like all default tendencies, they come with a price ticket. Transitions are the context which exposes that price.

The bias towards control is easy to recognise.  Management is essentially a form of control.  It is a complex form, because it has to harness forces, such as individuality and other people’s opinion, which tend to resist control. Management seeks to harness individuality by means such as role definitions and individual reward, and to harness other people’s opinion through devices like advertising, standards of customer service and appeals to teamwork.

The bias towards action can be seen and heard every day in the world of work. It comes in the form of plans, timetables, to-do lists, deadlines, the insistent demand for performance and results. Is it ready? Have you done that yet? When will it be achieved?



Don’t get us wrong. Control and action are both necessary features of organisation and management.  We absolutely accept that.  The problem is that these biases, useful in the normal course of events, can become counter-productive in the context of transition, when ‘business as usual’ is disrupted by the impact of the unfamiliar.  Potentially counter-productive when people – either as individuals, teams or whole organisations – are grappling with the challenges of transition: needing time and help to make sense of a changed context, new relationships and the personal adaptations required to be come to terms with all of this.

There is a very reasonable objection that has to be considered at this point. Surely it makes sense to provide control when people are disorientated by ambiguity?  Surely that’s what they need, a bit more structure?  And surely it’s helpful to have a bias for action when people are in danger of getting stuck? Surely that keeps them going and gets them through the transition faster than they could manage by themselves?  These are alluring arguments. To an extent.

It is true that loss of structure is what unsettles and disorientates people during a transition. And ‘structure’ comes in many forms, tangible and intangible.  It takes different forms for different people and can take multiple forms for one person.  It might be clarity of role or direction; it might be friends and colleagues; or a sense of belonging to a particular group or organisation or place; it might be a sense of power or purpose or security.  This diversity is one reason why transitions, particularly larger scale organisational transitions, can be so complex and take so long.  Different people have different needs to replace. Transitions are intensely personal to the individuals going through them.

For the same reason, a replacement structure cannot simply be provided, far less imposed, by someone else.  Structures are individual.  So is the process of reconstruction.

So there are two fundamental issues present in any transition.  The first is a loss of structure, a disintegration of the status quo. This always entails some loss of certainty and confronts the individual with questions of profound personal concern. Will there be a place for me? Will I be able to cope? Will I be capable? Will I be valued?  Anxiety-provoking questions. The second issue is the need to answer these questions. But answers can only be obtained in context. And they take time to emerge. They are seldom immediately clear, unambiguous or free of doubt. The learning process can be as anxiety-provoking as the questions themselves.

Which brings us back to the paradox of ambiguity. Some people embrace the opportunity of it and flourish in those circumstances. The majority of people, hold back from the ambiguity and their development can be hindered accordingly.

Leaders cannot do other people’s learning and development for them. They can help, by doing things which reduce other people’s anxieties and increase their reflective sense-making capabilities.  Equally, and all too often, leaders can hinder and do things which amplify anxieties and discourage learning.

Consequently, it’s about leaders being particularly careful about the form and extent of the structuring which they provide to individuals, teams and organisations in transition. It’s also to do with being careful about how they push for action. The way in which control and action are pursued becomes critical to whether a positive or negative transition dynamic is created.

Here’s why.  In the raw, pushing for control accentuates – and often reflects - intolerance of ambiguity.  Pushing for action mitigates against reflective sense-making practice. The two staples of the managerial mindset directly undermine the two factors which facilitate transition. One of the principal reasons why individual, team and organisational transitions are often so much slower and more painful than they need to be is that the managerial attitude, particularly in business, attaches insufficient value to reflective learning. There are some old commercial clichés that should sound like warning bells in the context of a transition.  ‘Come on; time is money.’  ‘Let’s have action not words.’  ‘You haven't got time to just sit around thinking about it.’  This is when transition blindness becomes dangerous, because it overlooks the fact that reflective sense-making is a form of action; it also overlooks the fact that it takes people time to make sense of change. And people only truly commit to what makes sense to them.

Now look again at the essence of transition leadership, as we described it earlier. To create the positive dynamic which facilitates transition, the leader has to manage the tension between the disruptive effects of ambiguity and the need to sustain reflective sense-making practice. Containing the effects of ambiguity is a way of structuring people’s experience of transition. It is a form of action, a thoughtful, careful form.  It is also a form of control, one that is mindful of the human dimension of change and informed by what psychology has to tell us about how people - and their responses to anxiety - differ.

Sustaining reflective learning practice is also to do with providing structure and with generating the momentum to get through transition. It too is a form of control and a means of action, but one which models thoughtful sense-making and understands how to involve others in the process in such a way that they are more likely to be committed to the outcome.

Our model of transition leadership is not a way of becoming soft and fuzzy. It is a way of avoiding the dangers of being forceful and vacant. The leadership that we are advocating to facilitate transitions is about effective management, which recognises the limits of imposed control and understands when patience and reflection are the most appropriate forms of action.


Awareness - So What?

Our intention in this paper has been to put the leadership challenges that come with transitions fairly and squarely in the open.  While transitions are complex, they are not insurmountable.  Our research has revealed that, transitions are a dynamic combination of the contextual, inter-personal and sense-of-self challenges.  What makes them appear more complex, and often overwhelming, is the leader’s particular level of tolerance for working with ambiguity, complexity and their to practise reflective sense-making.  In day-to-day practice the key to leading transitions is about learning our way through them with awareness.  Awareness of the context in which we - and others - are operating; awareness of how transitions impact our relationships; awareness of how we perceive ourselves and our sense of self worth.  If we can see and make a sense of what we are dealing with, we have more choice in how we respond and act in uncertainty and ambiguity.  If we can’t see, or at least make some sense of, how we are responding to transitions, then we leave ourselves vulnerable to what transitions throw at us and to the limits of our capabilities to respond to the unknown. Awareness is the prerequisite for mindful action. Awareness enables us to recognise the ambiguities for what they are, namely signs and clues about the dynamic transition challenges, so that we can engage with those challenges rather than recoil from them.

If we direct our attention to being mindful and aware of how transitions implicitly present the three leadership challenges (contextual, inter-personal and sense-of-self) then we are on the right track.  And, if we can continue to direct our awareness to the issues of tolerance for ambiguity and ability to learn through reflective sense-making, then we have a greater chance of leading successful transitions for ourselves, our people, our teams and our organisations.  In short, navigating transitions is all about cultivating our own awareness and supporting the cultivation and application of awareness in others.


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