The Marathon Effect

04 February 2021

For almost a year, the entire University of Alberta community has had to contend with numerous ongoing changes and challenges in our work and personal lives. Even though change has become part of our "new normal," dealing with these changes has not necessarily become any easier. One way that we might better understand how change is affecting our community is by considering The William Bridges Transition Curve:

The William Bridges Transition Curve demonstrates that it is common to experience a drop in productivity while experiencing transitions, but productivity rates begin to increase again once we move into new beginnings.

The William Bridges Transition Curve is a well-established way of looking at how individuals experience change through three distinct stages:

  • Endings: letting go of the current state, 
  • The Neutral Zone: figuring out what our new normal could look like, and
  • New Beginnings: adopting new routines and behaviours. 

In Managing Transitions, Bridges reminds us that we all move through change at our own pace and experience emotions including grief, confusion, denial, creativity, excitement, and acceptance. It is common to experience a drop in productivity while moving through endings and the neutral zone. Rest assured, productivity rates begin to increase again once we move through the transition curve into new beginnings. 

Change projects, like the University of Alberta for Tomorrow administrative and academic restructuring initiatives, involve hard work over extended periods of time. When experiencing change, it is not uncommon to feel anxious when you are not sure of the path forward, or when you are overwhelmed by the speed of the change happening around you. These feelings can be compared to an important phenomenon that Bridges labeled the marathon effect. The marathon effect happens when different parts of an organization are at different stages of change--much like runners in a marathon.. These runners might have an idea of what the marathon route looks like, but they don’t know how their race will unfold for them on that particular day, how they are going to feel during the race, or if the weather will hold. They also don’t necessarily know how the race is going for the lead runners, or even how far ahead the front runners actually are. 

At the U of A, we have people at all different stages of this process, and this is perfectly normal. We are all running our own personal race at our own pace, and where we are situated in the process our experience. Those of us in leadership roles should keep in mind that senior leadership and project teams are often ahead of others. Senior leadership and project teams have had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the project details for a longer period of time and have often had access to a larger scope of information. The next level of leaders are slightly behind in the transition process because they haven’t had as much access to information, or the same length of time to start feeling comfortable with the steps involved in implementing the change. Everyone else in the organization is just starting to hear that a change is happening and are still trying to figure out what this means and what the effects of the change might be.

The marathon effect can be managed effectively as long as everyone recognizes that, even though all of the runners will be at different points in a race, the majority will still cross the finish line eventually. Similarly, those involved in a change project will be at different points on an organization’s change curve, but most will reach some level of acceptance and move on to new beginnings. 

Some things to consider when thinking about the marathon effect in the context of University of Alberta for Tomorrow:

  1. Change is a personal journey and we all move through the change curve at our own pace — this is normal.
  2. Be aware of how you are experiencing the changes so far. What stage are you in—endings, the neutral zone, or new beginnings? How do you feel? How easy has it been for you to move through the transition curve? What steps can you take to make things easier on yourself?
  3. Trust the process. Remind yourself that there is a project plan and timelines in place for the change initiative and that information will be shared as soon as it is available.
  4. Seek out answers to your questions by reading webpage and email updates, and attending consultation events where applicable.
  5. If you are struggling with the changes, be sure to seek assistance. At the U of A, there are a number of great resources on the Faculty and Staff website to help all of us look after ourselves when going through change.