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Winning the Transition Game

Winning the Transition Game

Russ Klein

chess board

There are heavy consequences to ineffectively managing transitions, and sports are one of the best demonstrations of how it can affect a unit. For example, the punt is arguably the most important play in football. Or think of other effective game transitions such as getting back on defense in basketball, hockey, soccer and lacrosse, or turning a double play in baseball.

Each star coach in every sport will tell you the game is often won or lost in transition. To me, it stems from the fact that these transitions all place the executing teams in a highly vulnerable state, in which both the risks and rewards are heightened.


The No. 1 reason organizational growth stalls is failure to innovate. Change and change management are inherent in innovation. Change leaders typically focus on the current and future states, but they may overlook the most important element: the changeover period.

Today’s winning formula is no longer “built to last,” it’s “built to adapt.” Organizations in a state of constant adaptation must be mindful of the executional leaks that can occur when an intentional risk mitigation strategy and strong communication plan are lacking. Once an organization accepts the premise of why transition management is critical, it should do an audit of its key transitions.

The number of transitions occurring every day in your organization and ecosystem will measure into the hundreds or even thousands. As a leader, you must identify the high-yield and high-consequence transitions. Don’t assume that because a decision was made, the necessary steps will occur. This is one of the red flags identified by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton in their book, The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge into Action.

Millions of dollars can be made or lost during transitions. New product introductions, withdrawals, shelf resets and packaging changes all place your business in a vulnerable state. Brand name changes, product or service redesign and new distribution channels are very public transitions that impact both short-term performance and long-term reputation.

Then there are the internal hand-offs, such as those between marketing, sales, operations, supply chain, manufacturing, distribution and finance. Every movement from A to B to C, all the way to Z, requires diligent documentation and communication to ensure connected intelligence. When transitions are humming along, it can be the difference between “know-what” and “know-how.”

For a journal article titled “The Mundanity of Excellence,” social scientist Daniel Chambliss studied the anatomy of excellence among swimmers, with findings that could translate to anyone from plumbers to social workers to marketers. Chambliss found that excellence at all levels of swimming—from middle school to the Olympics—is not a function of natural talent or working harder. Instead, Chambliss determined three distinguishing characteristics of the best swimmers in the world: technique, discipline and attitude.

The same paper also referenced Peter Drucker’s 1985 assertion, that “to be effective does not require special gifts, special aptitude or special training. Effectiveness as an executive … demands doing certain—and fairly simple—things. It consists of a small number of practices.” How many athletes have reported making a few mundane changes in their technique that accounted for breaking out of a slump and winning it all?

Consider the three characteristics identified by Chambliss as they relate to marketing: qualitative or technique improvements made to processes and frameworks; the application of good disciplines such as cross-functionality, communication protocols, time management, project management and measurement; and having the attitude that attention to detail is in pursuit of an epic narrative in which individuals can see themselves playing a starring role. These can all add up to create a values-driven culture that understands the mundanity of excellence.

I encourage you to recall those three watchwords—technique, discipline and attitude—whenever you’re faced with a challenge. All it takes is the self-awareness of the mundanity of excellence and the overt decision to buy in to transition management. Remember that mundanity should never be confused with negativity. A culture should be established in which inquiry and curiosity about transition are valued and not perceived as a drag on the organization’s momentum. It’s about moving at the speed of trust, with an attention to detail that might save you.

Russ Klein is a five-time award-winning CMO who has quarterbacked teams for many of the world’s foremost brand names, serving as president of Burger King from 2003-2010 and holding top marketing and advertising posts at Dr. Pepper/7UP Companies, Gatorade, 7-Eleven Corporation and Arby’s Restaurant Group. He is also the former CEO of the American Marketing Association.