Transition Management: Your Guide to Building Sustainable Systems

transition managementTwenty years ago nobody was using cellular telephones. There was no such thing as an app or FaceTime. We didn’t maintain long-distance relationships via cameras installed on wireless devices and we didn’t see anything like a hybrid car on the road or plug-ins for them in parking lots. These are all examples of major transitions in society that have shaped our culture – or will shape our culture – and have replaced previous versions of technology. These technologies and widespread advancements like solar power, recycling, and even legalizing marijuana require a plan to help steer the change and control the influences of that change. The plans that are established to help influence our ever changing systems of society make up the theory of transition management.

Transition management is commonly associated with sustainable development and works to consider the geo-politcal relationships, economics, ethics, policy and trade-offs that are necessary for large scale sustainability efforts.  In the very fluid world of sustainable development, new theories, practices and ideals come on to the scene and need a lot of influence in order to make them viable. Most of us do not consider the thought, planning, logistics and work that must go in to encouraging something new to take root and become part of society. These transitions from “old” ways of doing things to “new” ways of doing things take time and effort from a lot of people at various stages of integrating the new practices.

A Working Example of Transition Management

Common knowledge about recycling is much more widespread now than it was 40 years ago. Even children can identify the most commonly recyclable household items. But, what has helped recycling efforts really take hold in some parts of the country and retain less influence in other parts? Cities like Portland, Oregon, implemented public recycling efforts that are now commonly accepted and have become part of what makes it one of the greenest cities in America. Their transition management models included awareness campaigns and information, installing recycling bins in public spaces, providing receptacles for home and office use, and making recycling as easy as setting out your garbage each week. Many restaurants in the Pacific Northwest include recycling bins near their trash cans which encourage people to sort through their throw-aways and determine which items go to the landfill and which can be recycled or used in a compost pile. Transition management efforts in Portland have made recycling an accepted, common practice among residents because of a successful transition model that was started years ago. These efforts have now paved the way for more change, more innovation and more success in bigger recycling efforts, not to mention an awareness and acceptance of what it takes to be more environmentally friendly overall. Portland has transitioned to a city that has at least one quarter of its workforce commuting by bike, carpool or public transportation and has goals to generate 100% of all energy use through renewable resources. One item in the transition model for renewable energy is using solar power, which has already been installed on all parking meters.

When you look at large scale social change like this you can see the many complexities that would arise with any level of implementation. Getting an entire city to recycle consistently means informing the citizens, but also asking logistical questions: How are the recyclables collected, by whom and how many people will it take, how many trucks need to be operating, how often are they picked up, where do they go, who runs that facility, who pays for all of it, etc.

Ethics are another consideration for the project. In the transition model there would likely be information on the overall cost of the program, what trade-offs are involved for everyone and the likelihood that these trade-offs would be accepted. In the recycling efforts of a major city one might ask if the environmental impact of more large trucks on the road to pick up the discarded material was worth the new program. Citizens might ask if the increase necessary in garbage collection fees would be reasonable for the longevity of the program.

Thinking Through any Sustainable Development Project

Using transition management for sustainability means identifying the logistics of the project and managing those logistics in a fashion that supports, equips and maintains momentum towards the end goal. This is why we often see goals set up in one-year, five-year, ten-year, fifty-year increments. Each development project has to be broken down into what can reasonably be accomplished over time. Each block of time moves the project closer to complete acceptance. It would never be accurate to make widespread change in a flash and expect that change to stick. That is why it is a transition.

Imagine when indoor plumbing first came on the scene. At first it was a novelty, then a luxury, then a possibility, now it is a policy. We have successfully transitioned into a lifestyle that expects and utilizes indoor plumbing , at least in the United States. Other countries are at the beginning of this process, still unable to maintain sanitary conditions at a shallow watering hole that is shared with animals, bathed in and drank from. How would one help this community transition from their watering hole to reasonable plumbing and hygiene practices? That is where the transition management model comes.

Key Tools for Successful Transition Management

Transition management can be seen as a large scale, often long-term, potentially never-ending project management system. To understand project management you need to know the lifecycle of project initiating, planning, executing, and controlling. Project management in the form of transition management includes many players from the political authorities to the people who are changing their behavior to those that are experts who help implement the new behavior appropriately. This complexity can change the amount of time a transition takes, usually making it longer. It can also involve delicate relationships between countries or within communities. For instance, a change in air pollution policy that would require changes in manufacturing, transporting and distribution of products would include multiple countries that all contribute to pollution through their industries as air pollution is not a respecter of international borders. If you want to improve your project management skills you can do so and be ready to take on any size project. 

Additionally, it is important to identify risk and learn how to look at risk as a tool for change. In any transition management project there will be risks involved including financial, potentially political, often cultural, and occasionally unplanned. By developing a working risk management plan you can help the desired transition take place most effectively and sustainably. Anyone working in transition management must understand the risks involved in their desire to implant new living practices or standards. If you take our example of clean water, a new well would be a great addition to a community struggling without, but identified risks could include well maintenance and expenses that the community might not have to contribute to their own success. Identifying this risk prior to implementing a development transition would allow for a built in solution to exist and a highly likelihood of success.

Lastly, any project – whether small transitions of behaviors at your workplace like adding waste paper recycling or a cultural shift in how petroleum is used in developed nations – require the proper understanding and management of people. These management skills will help any project succeed by utilizing effective communication, negotiation, team management, goals assessments and more.