Transition-Making is Choosing Changing

Beth Sanders
13 min readSep 7, 2022


When we avoid sharing opportunities to make meaning of our experiences and make choices from the meaning we’ve made, we avoid the challenges and brilliance of community.

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Consider these words of Adam Grant, author of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know:

Our identities are open systems, and so are our lives. We don’t have to stay tethered to old images of where we want to go or who we want to be. The simplest way to start rethinking our options is to question what we do daily.

It takes humility to reconsider our past commitments, doubt to question our present decision, and curiosity to reimagine our future plans. What we discover along the way can free us from the shackles of our familiar surroundings and our former selves. Rethinking liberates us to do more than update our knowledge and opinions — it’s a tool for leading a more fulfilling life (Grant, p. 243).

My identity, my sense of self and belonging, and the thresholds in my life are intertwined. On a mountain hike a couple of years ago, I realized that my body could not finish the beautiful hike I had started. I chose to surrender to and accept my injuries and the emotional tenderness that came with accepting my reality — I could not physically do what I set out to do. I was heartbroken.

I had to rethink what it meant to care for myself: notice when it’s time to give in, give myself permission to give in, care for my physical body, care for my emotional body, and allow and explore tenderness. My body crossed a physical threshold of no longer being able to do what it has always done, whether I wanted this or not.

My sense of self also crossed a threshold. Instead of “giving up” and maintaining emotional distance from my physical reality, I chose “giving in” and explored the emotional territory that comes with misplaced expectations: loss, sadness, anger, grief, etc. While I was alone for the hike, I was not alone in the repair and recovery that followed as friends and family sat with me while I nursed my physical and emotional wounds. I chose to participate in the changing of me, and the people close to me participated too.

Choice-making is participation in evolution

To participate in the evolution of our cities, neighbourhoods and communities, we can no longer work the way we’ve worked for years (or decades, in my case). Two questions I explore continuously: Who do I need to be to participate in my evolution? Who do we need to be to participate in our evolution?

Mere moments after saying “no” to working with conference organizers about planning and evolution (when their design would reinforce the status quo, not changing), I said “YES!” to a planner working for a city government in North America. Chris and their colleagues were feeling beaten down by the failure and unpopularity of recent projects. Elected officials and residents were unhappy with them, so they were licking their wounds and feeling bad.

Chris recognized that they needed to revisit everything about their work — the ways they work, especially the profoundly ingrained ways they work, are no longer working. They needed to find a new way to serve their city and didn’t know how to do it. They asked for help.

What I appreciated about Chris was the opportunity they identified for their colleagues to explore new possibilities for their work and city. Chris was choosing to create the conditions for forty planning colleagues to learn and grow by having a conversation about failure:

  • What failed?
  • What do we know now because of failure?
  • What do we know now about ourselves because of failure?
  • Who do we choose to be?
  • How do we choose to work?

Chris and their team recognized that how they work is not working, so what they do does not work. At question is their sense of who they are because how they work is tied to their sense of identity. Further, they lost touch with why they do the work they do; for some, a new “why” is emerging. They could have decided to blame others for failure and remove themselves from the growth opportunity before them. They could have chosen to redo the work and talk themselves into thinking they were doing something new, but without exploring their role in the failures they experienced, the pattern of frustration without improvement will continue. They are choosing to participate in the evolution of their work — and themselves.

Let’s talk about evolution

I desire to create the conditions for cities, neighbourhoods and communities to evolve consciously, which means making conscious choices, rather than unconscious choices, about how to improve our communities. So when we gather to learn about our work and what we do, we need to create social habitats that foster our growth and development, not leave it to chance.

The city planning conference organizers I mentioned in my last article about transition bypassing, who wanted my services to help them explore the idea of evolution, were stuck in a familiar place: a conventional conference where who will talk and what we will listen to is predetermined weeks or months ahead of time. They wanted to think about evolution without creating the conditions for anything to change. Embedded in their choice was the idea of prescription: a few people will dictate what we will talk about or what attendees will hear about.

Prescription minimizes opportunities for new possibilities to emerge, but it doesn’t have to. Years ago, I came across a soccer coach who was “prescribing” cardio workouts to his players. He wanted his players to work three hours of moderate cardio activity into their week outside training sessions. In his mind: three one-hour runs. When he checked in with his players, he heard that several went to the water park at West Edmonton Mall. At first, he was dismayed, but the athletes made their case: they ran up five flights of stairs, over and over again, for hours, to go down the waterslides. They met his expectation, but it wasn’t as he imagined it.

Our social habitats, when we gather to explore ideas and make decisions, are no different. We need a little structure to frame our work, but not so much that we constrict ourselves. Evolution requires new possibilities. Too much prescription limits our creativity and leads to confusion (think of an overly complicated conference program). Too little prescription leads to instability and incoherence. Where “to prescribe” is about control, at the other end of the spectrum is “to enable,” about empowerment.

We don’t have to choose between prescribe OR enable. We need to decide how much of each suit the circumstances. They are co-existing polarities. The question I always ask is not, “What is the right amount of structure?” I ask, “What is the minimal critical structure that will enable new possibilities?”

Prescribe AND enable

Let’s take two familiar examples for planners and citizens alike, a zoning bylaw and a conference, to compare the polarities of prescribe and enable.

In a zoning bylaw:

  • Prescribe (control): We’ll tell you what you can build and do (choose from this list), or
  • Enable (empower): Get creative and do what you want (within these reasonable constraints).

At a conference:

  • Prescribe (control): We’ll tell you what you can do or talk about (choose from this list), or
  • Enable (empower): Talk about or do what energizes you with whoever you want (within this theme to help focus our conversation).

Prescribe and enable have their own feel and energy because they have different purposes. They are each appropriate in other contexts. For example, prescribing rules and commands makes perfect sense in city bylaws that regulate construction practices for life safety. In contrast, enabling by facilitating creative entrepreneurial efforts makes perfect sense for general retail services in the city. We do not need to regulate what a business makes and sells, provided that it is not criminal or has no unfortunate consequences for neighbours.

Each is appropriate in certain contexts. The context determines the right mix.

Let’s choose to evolve our practice

City planners like rules.

I am a city planner, and I fully recognize that the city planner in me likes rules. We enjoy the intellectual stimulation of layers of policies and rules, figuring out how policies work, don’t work, and how they guide our efforts to stated outcomes. Planners work in the land development industry, economic development, social justice or ecological planning. Wherever we work, we share a desire to know and document what is to be achieved and the actions needed to reach that achievement.

City planners like control.

Our training at school and in the workplace is rooted in the inertia of prescribe and control, our default stance. When I started working as a planner in 1995, my boss pushed the boundaries of planning practice to create a “less prescriptive” zoning bylaw. In our case, it meant turning a 5-page list of the allowed commercial activities into a half-page. The bylaw listed so many uses that we had to change the bylaw (expensive and cumbersome) when a retail business changed from selling wigs to CDs. It was costly and time-consuming for the business and us. My boss’ take: if it’s legal to sell, then our rules should not get in the way (unless something unique needs to be regulated, like noise or fumes.)

Citizens like rules too.

Whenever planners start talking about simplifying the rules, citizens jump up to say they want more regulations and a high degree of control over what happens around them. The conundrum: we citizens want rules for others, but not rules for ourselves. Pick any topic: some people want more rules, and others want fewer rules.

What is the “box” for?

Figuring out the right rules or structure for the right context is complicated and messy work. It would be easy if planners, or anyone, could prescribe a set of rules and the city magically take that shape. City making does not work that way; the views of other folks at city hall come into play, as well as citizens, community organizations and the business community. Planners play a significant role in bringing the parties together to sort out what rules are for, what works well, what does not, and how to improve them. Rules are a box within which we constrict ourselves or on which we stand to enable new possibilities. Rules are like a nest: the comfort zone we don’t want to leave or a platform for new horizons.

When we let go of our heavy reliance on prescribe and control ways of operating and make space for enable and empower ways of being, we grow our social habitat expertise. In so doing, we expand our capacities to connect with each other, be in conversation, deepen our relationships, share decision-making and support each other in our changing as individuals and groups of any size.

Chris and their forty colleagues were working on (at least) five new skills or competencies:

  1. Communicate with clarity and purpose
  2. Create social habitats where conflict is explored and resolved
  3. Enable the city to be in conversation with itself
  4. Hold space for diversity, equity and inclusion
  5. Host conversations that allow new possibilities

Our ability to learn these competencies is directly associated with our ability to learn new ways of thinking, making and doing — as citizens. And our new ways of thinking, making and doing supports the evolution of our communities and cities.


I choose to participate in my evolution and create opportunities for others to participate in their evolution as well. How we relate to the rules associated with our work, to each other and to the communities we serve, is a choice directly linked to the evolution of our civic practice. When too reliant on prescribe and control, we place a limit on our conscious growth and development. When we enable our capacity to empower ourselves and others, we remove, or at least raise, that limit on our conscious growth and development. If our work aims to improve our communities and cities, then these limits are not wanted.

The choice about bylaws:

  • Prescribe and control what we want in bylaws OR enable and empower what the community wants

The choice about how we talk among ourselves:

  • Prescribe and control by limiting what we talk about among ourselves OR enable and empower ourselves to explore and live into new possibilities

The choice about how we work with community:

  • Prescribe and control what we want the community to talk about OR enable and empower the community to explore and live into new possibilities by inviting them to talk about what they want to talk about

If we are not able to talk among ourselves in ways that allow us to explore and live into new possibilities, we will not be able to work on the content of our work, or our relationships with others in our communities, in ways that allow the wisdom of the community to emerge. “Prescribe and control” and “enable and empower” are embedded in the content of our work and how we talk about our work with ourselves and others.

A quick participatory test

Here’s a quick participatory test to help you assess if the gathering you are planning or are participating in leans away from prescribe and control and into empower and enable.

Question 1: Are we spending most of our time focused on the words of one or a few people or the words of many people?

  • If few people: a prescribe and control habitat
  • If many people: an enable and empower habitat

Question 2: Do the organizers or participants determine the topics, tasks and activities?

  • Of organizers: a prescribe and control habitat
  • If participants: an enable and empower habitat

Question 3: Are the people we work with decided for us or chosen by us?

  • If decided for us: a prescribe and control habitat
  • If chosen by us: an enable and empower habitat

Active involvement in evolution

When I said YES! to Chris and their forty planning colleagues, I was saying a resounding YES! to work with people who wanted to participate actively in their evolution. They wanted to name and examine what is not working and actively improve their work and relationships.

These forty city planning people named their evolution from disjointed, confusing, uncoordinated and frantic work to something new. That “something new” is under construction at the moment, but here’s what I observed them say yes to:

  • YES, to explore mistakes and learn from them (“no” to pretending no errors were made)
  • YES, to act on what we learn about ourselves (“no” to “talking” and not “acting”)
  • YES, to experience the discomfort of talking about ourselves (“no” to avoiding discomfort)
  • YES, to explore our differences (“no” to avoiding our differences)
  • YES, to work on our relationships with each other (“no” to working in isolation)

These forty city planning people said no to the status quo. They said yes to growing into something new, even if unknown. There is hard work ahead, and they will do it while practicing to find the balance between prescribe and enable as a community of professionals. They will learn how to work together better — so they can do better work with other people.

They are actively involved in their evolution. And their city’s evolution, too.

A cascade of bypassing

Transition bypassing is a means to avoid changing — at the scale of me, us or all of us. Between us, it starts when we decide to avoid contact with each other (connection bypassing), or when we do have social contact, we avoid creating opportunities to interact with each other (conversation bypassing). When we are having conversations with each other without holding ourselves and others accountable and responsible (relationship bypassing), we cannot reach beyond being mere communities of shared interest (community bypassing) and share decision-making. Further, when we are unwilling to change — especially changing how we meet so we can speak and listen more skillfully, we engage in transition bypassing.

When we avoid sharing opportunities to make meaning of our experiences and make choices from the meaning we’ve made, we avoid the challenges and brilliance of community. And the choice, in every moment, rests with each of us. Choosing transition means choosing to participate in our changing.


Think of an example of something changing in the outside world…

  • Settle into the part of you that recognizes that changing is necessary. What is important to you about this change?
  • Settle into the part of you that is scared about what is changing. What is it about the change that causes fear in you? What does this fear signal to you about what is important to you?
  • Settle into a part of you that is a voice of wisdom. How does your fear inform how you view the world and how you shape your choices? What support can you give yourself to make choices aligned with what is important to you and the world you live in?


Grant, Adam, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Viking Books (2021).

Sanders, Beth, Nest City: How Citizens Serve Cities and Cities Serve Citizens, POPULUS Community Planning Inc.: Edmonton (2020).

This article first appeared at



Beth Sanders

Beth works with cities looking for practical ways to navigate the complexity of city life — to hear each other and make better cities. Author of Nest City.