August 1994 // Volume 32 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA3

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Transition Team - A Tool for Change

When budget cuts force large staff lay-offs, the usual communication lines may not work. Minnesota Extension Service appointed a transition team representing all parts of the organization to supplement usual procedures and to provide personal support to those cut, their families, and colleagues. The team used confidential communication procedures and the theoretical work of Dr. Pauline Boss, Dr. Robert Veninga, and William Bridges to facilitate organized movement from old security to new reality.

Janet A. Krofta
Housing Assistance Council
1025 Vermont Avenue NW, Suite 606
Washington, District of Columbia
Internet address:

Pain is cutting positions. Moving from a paradigm of secure jobs resulting from good work to one of budget-driven downsizing is especially difficult for dedicated staff in the Cooperative Extension system. For those cut, who may have few alternative opportunities to use their professional skills in their current communities, and for their co-workers, there is a sense of devaluing and betrayal.

When inflation, hold-the-line government appropriations, and increased benefit costs converged on the Minnesota Extension Service (MES), a 10% cut in staff was needed. It was announced at the annual conference in October that both state and county staffs would sustain a 10% cut at the end of the fiscal year, almost nine months in the future. Employee policies required from two weeks to six months severance notice, depending on job classification and length of service.

Several pieces were already in place to help with implementing difficult decisions. Following strategic planning, a comprehensive staffing plan had been prepared to set program-based staffing priorities with alternatives for either increased or reduced resources. Minnesota Extension Service had already moved to organization by clusters of counties, which provided for delivery of programs using agents across county lines. Communication was aided by good working relationships between the agents' associations and Extension administration and by the existence of active faculty and civil service consultative committees. As part of the strategic planning process, the organization had studied transitions with William Bridges. The University of Minnesota already had in place a Career Transition Center for employees whose positions had been cut.

Transition Team Appointed

A month after the initial announcement, an eight-member Transition Team was appointed including state and county staff, civil service staff, and academic staff. Some geographic dispersion was included, but not all districts were represented so that the committee could be small enough to act quickly. One member was selected for ties to the agents' association, while others worked specifically with grievance and mediation issues and dealing with stress and family resource management. A family life specialist and a member of the personnel staff were also included. Although not selected for this reason, the majority of the committee had themselves, or a close family member, experience the stress of job loss. Team appointments were made before it was known which positions were cut. This assignment did not signal immunity from cuts. These were temporary appointments, expected to end around June 30, the final effective dates of the position cuts. The assignment of the Transition Team was to:

  1. Listen and respond to needs.

  2. Provide communication and linkages between MES employees and administration.

  3. Recommend policies and actions to MES administration and program leadership to reduce negative impact of cuts.

  4. Facilitate use of available resources.

  5. Make referrals to available resources.

  6. Advocate for resources needed for transition of individuals and MES.

Specifically not part of the Transition Team assignment were:

  1. Decisions on position cuts.

  2. Decisions on budget reallocations (beyond advocacy for transition resources).

  3. Adjustment of programs and position responsibilities.

  4. Actual delivery of counseling to individuals and clusters.

Work of the Transition Team

All meetings of the Transition Team were by conference call, with a designated campus room for persons who were able to attend in person. A closed conference board was established on the Extension electronic network, with members urged to access it at least twice weekly. This provided an on-going mechanism for confidential questions and answers by the team. Ground rules were established from the start:

  1. Committee discussion was strictly confidential.

  2. Each person was free to ask for reassignment from any task that would be personally uncomfortable.

  3. High priority would be given to work of the Team.

  4. Committee composition would be open to change in response to changing situations.

Concern of the team was for individuals whose positions were cut and their families and for those who would remain with fewer colleagues. Members were expected to listen and provide feedback on what was and was not going well. The aim was to facilitate a healthy "neutral zone" between the endings of the former staffing and new beginnings (Bridges, 1988). It was especially recognized that usual communication channels may not work well during times of transition.

Work of the Transition Team was introduced to county agents at district conferences in December. This was also the month in which affected county-based individuals learned that their positions would be cut. It was decided that members of the Team would be assigned to call each person on a personal basis approximately one week after they had received the official notice by letter. The purpose of the call was to provide friendly support, answer questions, listen to needs and concerns, and refer to appropriate resources. Each person whose position was cut full- or part-time also received a separate letter with benefits and resources information.

The Team met approximately monthly for a six-month period. Each meeting began with a round of "What are you hearing?" and was followed by a confidential memo of recommendations to the Director. This allowed unfiltered communication by the usual authority channels and a reduced feeling of risk in expressing reactions.

Resources Provided

Two tools for communication of resources and strategies were developed by the Transition Team: a temporary, weekly newsletter distributed electronically to all Extension staff, and a videotape. The weekly newsletter used materials developed by family life, family resource management and nutrition specialists, the University Career Transition Center, University Counseling Services, college career placement offices, stress research of Dr. Pauline Boss (1988), and transition materials by William Bridges (1990) and Price Pritchett and Ron Pound (1990). This newsletter sought to help colleagues deal sensitively with the situations of persons whose jobs were cut, as well as to provide ideas for coping and moving on by those persons. A 19-minute videotape, "Transition Time: Surviving the Loss of a Job," with Family Life Specialist Ron Pitzer and Dr. Robert Veninga of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health was prepared and distributed without charge to all offices in which there was a cut. This tape was prepared for the internal audience and designed as a basis for discussion. It was also used in educational programs for outside audiences.

Other Supportive Activities

This retrenchment moved remarkably well. One reason was wide-spread support for doing it as well as possible. Agent groups and associations, staff at all levels, the Epsilon Sigma Phi chapter, retirees, and advisory committees stepped forward to provide personal support and career transition help to persons whose positions were cut. The Transition Team provided one channel for such voluntary support. There was mission-driven basis for cuts made and a feeling of being in it together. County and state level cuts were made equitably.


The Transition Team provided personal support, information, and referral to resources for both persons whose positions were cut and those remaining in the organization. Additional channels of communication were provided. Healthy acknowledgement of endings was encouraged.

By the end of June, much of the acute pain of position cuts was past. Those cut were moving toward new situations. Internal shifts to new vacancies were made where appropriate. Staff at all levels were ready to move forward. The organization was developing a restructuring plan aligned with smaller staff size and earlier strategic planning. Staff at all levels recognized that they will look at their jobs differently because of the experience of the cuts. One agent said, "I will never look at my job the same. Before I thought that if I did my job well, it was secure. Now, I know that is not necessarily so." Setting program priorities and sharing work at the cluster level had become more of a necessary reality. By December, the Minnesota Extension Service had moved forward with the feeling that this significant retrenchment had gone more smoothly than any large cuts in the past.


Several factors contributed to the successful transition of the Minnesota Extension Service when budget constraints forced a 10% cut in staff. Earlier strategic planning had begun setting priorities, and reorganization into clusters of counties allowed for more flexible use of staff. Good communication channels were already in place between Extension administration and staff through the agents' associations and faculty and civil service consultative committees. Nevertheless, appointment of a Transition Team representing all types of employees within the organization provided an additional communication channel during a time of transition when usual communications could be blocked. The Transition Team recognized the human side of the adjustments to the changes, identified needs, made referrals to resources, and provided an additional source of confidential feedback and feedforward.


Bridges, W. (1988). Surviving corporate transitions. New York: Doubleday.

Bridges, W. (1990). Transition management handbook. Mill Valley, CA: William Bridges & Associates.

Boss, P. (1988). Family stress management. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Pritchett, P., & Pound, R. (1990). The employee handbook for organizational change. Dallas, TX: Pritchett.

Author Notes

Additional sources for information on transition teams:

Minnesota Extension Service. (1990). Comprehensive staffing plan. St. Paul: University of Minnesota.

Minnesota Extension Service. (1991). Transition time: Surviving the loss of a job (Videotape, AD-VH-5884). St. Paul: University of Minnesota.

Veninga, R. (1985). A gift of hope. Boston: Little, Brown, & Company.