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Transition State Planning -The Wiggly Path

Updated: Aug 26, 2020


Much like a pilot uses 'Waypoints' to navigate and adjust her journey, Transition State Planning applies the same mental model to delivering change.

The components of a transition state plan
The components of a transition state plan

Transition States occur every 3-4 months (ACD Cycle) across the span of your change programme. This is one complete sequence of the Adaptive Change Design Cycle. It usually takes place early in the FOCUS stage but can be started in SCAN. It must be ready before ACT. If you haven't read about the ADC Cycle,s here's a 30-second summary.

The primary purpose is to set goals, describe outcomes. flag risks and set principles for the upcoming work.

The second purpose is to establish a plan that has the notion of adjustment inbuilt. This helps establish adaptive ways-of-working.

The third purpose of Transition States is as a review and replanning point for the next TSP Period. Programme funding is usually reviewed at each Transition State.



The Transition State Plan provides:

  1. a handrail for light-touch governance

  2. a dynamic change journey map that represents how things are at a point in time.

  3. clarity and focus for the short-term work

  4. opportunities to react to events and include innovative ideas

  5. greater adoption of plans - it's built by the team for the team.

  6. a simple model - explained in a few minutes.



Transition State Planning stems from the characteristics of Complex Adaptive Systems. It starts with the premise that no one can predict the long-range future. Outcomes will emerge at various points along the way. Much like ’Scenario Planning’, it starts with a few hypothetical ideas. Team workshops refine these ideas until a plan for the next TSP Period is complete.

At the very least Transition States have:

  • business goals and

  • pass-criteria for completion of the Transition State.

At this stage, the Transition States are not pinned to a hard date. They describe the sequence of outcomes, and roughly when they'll happen. Transition States are re-planning points - a time to reassess and re-estimate the next TSP Period. They are also an opportunity to amplify the value-adding and extinguish value-detracting aspects.

They are a plotted series of 'Way-Points' for the change journey - known as the Transition States. Apart from business goals and pass-criteria - principles, technical outcomes, and risks are pinned to a Transition State 'flagpole'. The nearest pole bearing the most flag items and the furthest the least.

Transition State Planning is an adaptive technique that focuses on:

  • Speed - everyone benefits from the delivery of something tangible early.

  • Restraint - a series of smaller investments are lower hurdles than one large one. And experience suggests that teams are more productive under tighter budgets.

  • Simplicity - shorter timeframes means simpler results.

  • Projection - planning doable work for a three-month window will tend to be accurate, six-months much less so, and a year very questionable.

Common Pitfalls

  1. Planning is left too late - you will run the risk of not being able to govern when projects are already running.

  2. Failure to communicate the Transition State Planning model (this will be a 'sell' to some parties)

  3. Thinking no other planning is required; workstream leads and project managers will require detailed plans for the ACD Cycle. In addition, a strategic 3-5-year model will be required (reference T-Maps).



Ingrained within Transition State Planning, course-correction is encouraged throughout the change journey. Transition State Planning is dynamic. It's akin to flying in stormy weather, adapting to prevailing winds, fog, snow, and the like. Compare this to a predictable route journey by rail, constrained by where the tracks go. The latter is the sort of change planning many of us grew up with. The world of Gantt charts and Critical Path Analysis. Such tools are fine for smaller, narrowly focused projects. But they are left wanting when it comes to multi-dimensional change. Each cycle between transition states is an opportunity to increase business value. Risks and opportunities change over time and innovations emerge from testing of ideas. Each transition state is a milestone that triggers reassessment and replanning. Transition State reviews are light-touch governance points that ensure:

  • Principles are being adhered to

  • Risks are being addressed

  • Controlled Spend

  • Delivered Business value.


For those of you who like to see the concept map behind. this. article TSP concept map

Related Adaptive Change Design tools:

Rumsfeldian Risk Analysis


ACD Cycle


Simplicity Cycle

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