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A lesson in change management from the two presidents

January 21, 2009 Articles, Management No Comments


Why do many change management initiatives fail?  The recent US presidential election gives some clues for success.

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 in the lead up to the inauguration – the smooth transition of power from the outgoing to the incoming president.

This is a change management process that seems to have succeeded where many change management initiatives fail.


For example, Peter Senge in “The Dance Of Change” (1999) reported that “Two-thirds of Total Quality Management programs fail, and reengineering initiatives fail 70% of the time.”  Again in 2002 David Miller writing in the Journal of Change Management posited that “Change initiatives crucial to organizational success fail 70% of the time.”

Why, then 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 has been a “Transition Management Plan” in place by both parties.

“it isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.”  This opening line in William Bridges’ best selling “Managing Transitions” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing 1997), 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.

Bush and Obama must be complemented for their management of this transition process.

It could have been so different.

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.

What did they do?

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

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 Bridges made – 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.

© The National Learning Institute

About the Author -

Bob Selden is the author of the best-selling “What To Do When You Become The Boss” – a self-help book for new managers – see details at He’s also coached at one of the world’s premier business schools, the Institute for Management Development in Lausanne, Switzerland and regularly advises managers around the globe on their current challenges. Please add your comments to this article or contact Bob via if you would like some free advice on your current management challenge.


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