Navigating Alignment in the “Neutral Zone”

One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time. — Andre Gide 

In the world of organization design, the transition between the old ways of working to the new ways of working is a time that’s often fraught with unease, frustration, and uncertainty, with disruption high, unknowns frequent, and employees in a state of flux because their status quo— work systems and activities, etc.— has been upended. I call this moment of transitional angst the neutral zone. While the new design’s temporary disruption will ultimately achieve better efficiency and productivity, getting to that point can be a challenge.

The alignment process begins by first determining which capabilities to build that will give the organizations its desired results. Once the alignment process is designed, the realization and implementation process begins, and the organization starts adopting the new ways of working. But when in that neutral zone, it’s not unusual that processes may not immediately work as smoothly as they did using the old way, which can cause significant disruption, both practically and emotionally. Studies show that while in the neutral zone employee performance decreases by as much as 50 percent, workers take far more time off work, and leaders are more disengaged because everything is just harder. So it’s imperative to have effective neutral zone management in place to help the organization navigate the changes taking place.

Too often workers don’t understand the why of what’s happening; they don’t understand that the disruption is part of the process. It is expected and does not reflect poorly on them, but this transitionary stage is rarely addressed in advance, much less planned for. If an organization lets workers know what the process typically entails, it will help them prepare for that time of flux, which in turn will limit its negative impact and can even reduce the time spent in the neutral zone.

Also, many leaders assume that realigning their organization will be a seamless transition, with employees going from one page to the next in near-unison. But everyone adopts and adapts to change differently and at their own speed. And there’s also fear of the unknown or worry that the new alignment may somehow diminish their role or make them expendable. So a leader’s own expectations need to be grounded in that reality, which can be hard when a company has revenue targets, goals, and certain expectations. But managers should carefully weigh all the outputs that the organization is producing and identify where they can lessen the workload so employees can then spend their efforts managing the transition. 

Generally speaking, the best course is to take a proactive rather than a reactive approach to get out in front of these issues, using three proven strategies that can minimize the disruption.

  1. Communication. If leaders explain to their employees the whys and hows behind the transition—why it needs to happen, why now, how it will improve production, how it will benefit both the organization and employees—it can go a long way to limit that time in the neutral zone. And it may also help alleviate anxiety about or resentment at the disruption.
  2. Produce a Road Map. Presenting a step by step agenda for the new organization alignment that shows where the company is, where it wants to get to, and the key events that need to take place to get from point A to point B, makes employees feel more part of the process and more engaged in the changes.
  3. Compare Current Procedures with New Aligned Processes. Showing employees how the alignment will be implemented and how they will be integrated as a whole to improve the organization’s productivity or efficiency, enables them to get a big-picture view of the change goals. During this process, you may also discover capability gaps in your organization that need a temporary bridge. This is a great opportunity to get your team involved in the neutral zone by empowering them to identify, proposed temporary solutions, and implement these short-term measures, which improves understanding of the overall transformation while also creating collaboration and a shared purpose. The more an employee can see the ultimate vision, the better they can understand the changes being implemented.

How the transformation is communicated, shared, and led throughout the organization are by far the most impactful aspects of managing the organizational behaviors that tend to slow things down while in the neutral zone. Even if you have employees who by nature are change-adverse, organizations that are well-led, with plans that are well-communicated and well mapped out, will get through much more effectively than an organization that may have employees eager for change but lacks the critical elements of good communication and leadership.

Lastly, it’s critical to let employees have a voice during organization alignment. One suggestion is a monitored feedback loop where they can express frustrations, point out a process that needs a fix, make suggestions, or find someone to talk to about a specific problem. If you’re the leader of an eleven-thousand-person organization, you’re certainly not going to be able to monitor all that. But a monitor team who are advocates for the change, that understand the change, and that can provide that feedback group with information and support will help the organization respond quickly to problems and help employees get through the neutral zone with minimal disruption so they can more quickly begin to enjoy the benefits the new alignment offers.

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