Saturday, May 31, 2008

Managing Transitions

At church on Sunday, I was observing the flow between songs. The choir and musicians moved from one musical piece to another, from fast song to slow. The toughest part of their routine was clearly those transitions. That was when the director had to work the hardest. During the songs it was clear that the choir knew what they were doing. They focused on the music. During the transitions however, they focused on their leader. Their leader (the choir director) worked hard to ensure that the flow was uninterrupted, that the transitions were as seamless as possible.

Transitions are those gaps between songs, between phases of an operation, between shifts, or between acts in a play, where chaos often reins. They are those periods before the operation is back to full stride in which a team or unit can be caught short. Transitions are the hard part. That makes it -- Leader Business.

I have seen this before -- in a much different context. Military operations have transitions that similarly demand the leader's presence. The transition from offense (attack) to defense is very demanding. Units must switch gears, organize for a different mission, resupply accordingly, and not let down their guard. Similar challenges are seen in transitions from peacemaking to peacekeeping or from day operations to night. These are very demanding and require constant leader attention.

Strategic leaders understand that good units will do what they have been trained, but that the difficulty of transitions demands detailed plans and rehearsals and continuous leader attention on these momentum swings. I have seen many combat leaders who only rehearsed the transitions between phases before initiating a mission. They had full confidence in their subordinate teams and leaders to execute the tasks and missions within each phase, yet recognized that success would be determined in the gaps between them. These transitions are usually the most difficult, the highest risk, and where battles are won and lost.

And so it occurred to me that if the choir director was to rehearse anything, it would likely be the movement from one song to another. The singing would be fine -- the choir members and musicians would see to that. The hard part, the part worthy of practice and deliberate oversight, was in the seams between songs, the transitions.

OK. So what about the rest of us? Are transitions still an issue? I welcome your thoughts and input. Here are a few of mine:

-- When new teammates come onto the staff, leadership is required to ensure that the transition is smooth. They must receive training, orientation to company policies, and be brought up to speed on ongoing projects and initiatives.

--If one employee is replacing another, the leader should oversee the transition, ensuring projects and customers are handed off, and the seam is as transparent as possible to outsiders.

-- When employees first become supervisors, there is a similar need for leader involvement. They need training on leadership, communication, and other management skills. They need a mentor or coach to help them transition from the rank and file.

-- When shifts change out, the leader should be present to ensure the passing of information and the incorporation of new learning.

-- Between phases of an operation (new product line, new semester at school, new fiscal or calendar year, new season in sports), leaders must ensure After Action Reviews (AARs) are completed and key lessons are captured, new teams are organized, tasks and equipment are distributed, and the new phase is begun without missing a beat.

Much as with the positioning of key leaders at seams within or between units, leader presence ensures that transitions do not become the source of unit failure. Seek them out in your unit. Ensure data is exchanged, customers are assured, new team members are integrated. Provide the training or conduct the rehearsals. Identify these transition points and make them a priority.

Leaders are like choir directors. Good ones, who understand the importance of transitions, make good music. Transitions are Leader Business.

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