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Managing Transitions in Complex Change Efforts: William Bridges' Model - A 2024 Perspective

Change is a constant in both personal and professional contexts, yet managing transitions effectively remains a significant challenge. William Bridges, Ph.D., in his seminal work "Surviving Corporate Transition" (1990), offers a profound understanding of how to navigate complex changes. Although initially tailored for the business community, Bridges' three-stage model—comprising "The Ending," "The Neutral Zone," and "The Beginning"—is universally applicable. This essay delves deeply into each stage, providing comprehensive insights and practical strategies for managing transitions in various organizational settings, with a particular focus on programs like Healthy Start.

Stage One: The Ending

Change begins with an ending, an idea that might seem paradoxical but is essential for comprehending the transition process. The Ending stage is marked by a sense of loss and resistance, as people must let go of their old ways before they can embrace new beginnings. This stage involves several types of losses, each of which requires careful management.

Loss of Attachments

Attachments refer to the relationships and group memberships that define our sense of belonging. In organizational settings, attachments often form the backbone of professional identity and job satisfaction. When changes disrupt these attachments, the impact can be profound. For instance, a nurse aide relocating from a local clinic to a school site may feel a significant sense of loss. To mitigate this, rituals such as farewell parties can provide a tangible way to acknowledge and honor these attachments. Such rituals not only recognize the individual's contributions but also help the remaining team members come to terms with the change.

Attachments are more than just personal connections; they represent an integral part of how people see themselves within the organization. A sense of belonging is critical for job satisfaction and overall morale. When an attachment is severed, employees might experience feelings of isolation or even resentment, which can significantly impact their performance. Organizations can address this by implementing programs that facilitate new connections and support networks within the new structure. For example, mentorship programs that pair new employees with experienced staff can help rebuild a sense of community and belonging.

Loss of Turf

Bridges uses the term "turf" broadly to encompass everything from physical territories to fields of responsibility. In collaborative environments, turf issues can become particularly pronounced. When decision-making shifts from individual autonomy to group consensus, it often triggers fears about losing control and influence. Empathetic listening and negotiation are crucial strategies here. Understanding the perspective of those affected by the change can pave the way for more effective solutions. For example, if a school administrator resists having outside agency staff on campus due to liability concerns, exploring these concerns empathetically can lead to negotiated solutions that respect everyone's interests.

Turf issues can also emerge from deeper psychological needs for security and recognition. People often equate their "turf" with their value and importance within an organization. Losing turf can feel like a demotion or a reduction in status. Leaders must acknowledge these fears and provide clear, respectful communication about why the change is necessary and how it benefits everyone involved. This might include detailed discussions about new roles, responsibilities, and the opportunities these changes can bring.

A practical example can be seen in corporate mergers, where departmental boundaries are redefined. Employees from merged departments might fear losing their influence. Leaders can address this by involving employees in creating the new organizational structure, ensuring their skills and expertise are recognized and utilized in the new setup. This inclusive approach can reduce resistance and foster a sense of ownership and cooperation.

Loss of Structure

The loss of structure is more psychological than physical. Organizational structures—authority patterns, policies, schedules—provide a framework that helps people navigate their roles and responsibilities. When these structures are disrupted, it can lead to feelings of chaos and insecurity. Establishing temporary structures during the transition period can provide much-needed stability. For instance, an outstationed worker accustomed to close supervision might struggle with increased autonomy. Partnering with the worker's home agency to provide additional supervision during the transition can ease this adjustment.

Structure provides a sense of predictability and security. When it is removed, employees may feel like they are in uncharted waters, which can be incredibly stressful. To counteract this, transitional structures should mimic some elements of the old system while gradually introducing new ones. This could involve setting up interim reporting lines or temporary committees to handle specific tasks until the new system is fully operational. These measures help bridge the gap between the old and the new, making the transition smoother and less intimidating.

In the context of educational institutions undergoing reform, teachers accustomed to a particular curriculum might find the introduction of new teaching methods challenging. Temporary support structures, such as professional development workshops and peer support groups, can help teachers adapt to the new expectations while maintaining a sense of order and stability.

Loss of a Future

We all carry an expected future in our minds, and changes can disrupt these expectations. In initiatives like Healthy Start, which aim to transform service delivery fundamentally, this disruption can be particularly acute. People may worry about job security and their ability to meet new performance expectations. Clear communication about the future and the roles people will play is essential to alleviate these concerns. Providing training and support to help individuals understand and prepare for their new roles can also help mitigate the sense of uncertainty.

This sense of a lost future can be particularly challenging to manage because it is often intertwined with personal and professional aspirations. Employees may have envisioned a clear career path or a specific role within the organization, and sudden changes can shatter these dreams. Leaders need to provide a new vision that incorporates employees' aspirations wherever possible. Career development plans, opportunities for advancement within the new structure, and clear communication about future prospects can help employees rebuild their expectations and see a future within the changed organization.

For example, in a company transitioning to a new technology platform, employees might worry about their skills becoming obsolete. Leaders can address this by offering comprehensive training programs that not only enhance their current skills but also provide new competencies aligned with future needs. Additionally, creating clear career pathways within the new technological framework can help employees visualize their future growth and development within the company.

Loss of Meaning

Meaning is intrinsic to how we understand our roles and the work we do. When organizational changes undermine this meaning, it can lead to confusion and disengagement. People may repeatedly ask "Why?" as they try to make sense of the new reality. Addressing this requires acknowledging individual perspectives and providing clear explanations for the changes. For example, if a new service model is being implemented, explaining how it aligns with broader organizational goals and values can help people find new meaning in their work.

Meaning in work is often derived from the sense of making a difference, contributing to something larger, and feeling valued. Changes that disrupt these sources of meaning can lead to a decline in motivation and engagement. Leaders should articulate how the new changes align with the organization's mission and values, and how each person's role contributes to the overall vision. Stories and examples of success can be powerful tools to illustrate the positive impact of the changes and help employees see the value in their new roles.

For instance, in a nonprofit organization shifting its focus from direct service to advocacy, staff members may struggle to see the impact of their work. Leaders can bridge this gap by sharing success stories of how their advocacy efforts have influenced policy changes and improved lives. Regular updates on the progress and impact of their work can help staff reconnect with the organization's mission and understand the significance of their contributions.

Loss of Control

Change often involves situations beyond our control, which can be disconcerting. Even when choices are available, the right decision is not always clear. Involving stakeholders in the planning and implementation processes can help restore a sense of control. Genuine involvement—not just token participation—can significantly reduce resistance and increase buy-in. For instance, involving staff in decision-making about new workflows or procedures can empower them and enhance their commitment to the change.

Control is a fundamental human need. When it is taken away, it can lead to anxiety and resistance. Providing opportunities for employees to have a say in the changes that affect them can help alleviate these feelings. This might include setting up focus groups, advisory committees, or suggestion programs where employees can contribute ideas and feedback. When employees feel they have some control over the process, they are more likely to support and engage with the changes.

In the context of a healthcare facility implementing new patient care protocols, involving nurses and other frontline staff in the planning and development of these protocols can significantly enhance their acceptance and implementation. By valuing their input and addressing their concerns, leaders can create a more collaborative and inclusive environment, ultimately leading to better outcomes for both staff and patients.

Managing these various losses requires clear and consistent communication. Being transparent about what is known, acknowledging uncertainties, and involving people in planning their future are crucial steps in helping them navigate the ending stage. This approach not only addresses immediate concerns but also sets the stage for a smoother transition to the next phase.

Stage Two: The Neutral Zone

The Neutral Zone is the transitional period between the old and new ways. This phase is characterized by disorientation and confusion but also presents significant opportunities for creativity and renewal. Managing this stage effectively requires recognizing and addressing its unique challenges while leveraging its potential for positive transformation.

Encouraging Cohesion

Cohesion is vital during the Neutral Zone. Activities that foster a sense of community and provide a platform for discussing personal reactions to changes can be incredibly beneficial. For example, organizing regular lunches where staff can share their experiences and feelings about the transition can help build solidarity and mutual support. These informal gatherings create a safe space for expressing concerns and brainstorming solutions.

Building cohesion during this stage is about more than just team-building activities; it involves creating an environment where people feel connected and supported. This can be achieved through regular check-ins, team meetings, and social events that encourage open communication and collaboration. Leaders should be visible and accessible, demonstrating a genuine interest in the well-being of their team members. This fosters a sense of trust and community, which is essential for navigating the uncertainties of the Neutral Zone.

For instance, in a company undergoing a major reorganization, regular team-building activities such as workshops and retreats can help employees bond and develop a shared understanding of the new organizational structure. Encouraging cross-departmental collaboration and providing opportunities for employees to work on joint projects can also strengthen relationships and foster a sense of unity.

Addressing Old Issues

The Neutral Zone often brings unresolved issues to the forefront. Instead of suppressing these concerns, leaders should use them as opportunities to clarify and address lingering questions. For example, if parents express dissatisfaction with previous decision-making processes, this can be a chance to revisit and refine how shared decision-making will work in the new system. By addressing these issues openly, leaders can build trust and create a more inclusive environment.

Old issues can be a source of tension and resistance if not addressed. Leaders should create forums for open discussion where employees can voice their concerns and provide input on how to resolve these issues. This might involve setting up task forces or working groups to tackle specific problems or holding town hall meetings to address broader concerns. By actively engaging with these issues, leaders can demonstrate their commitment to resolving them and building a more collaborative and transparent organization.

In educational settings, for instance, if there have been long-standing issues with communication between teachers and administrative staff, the Neutral Zone can be an opportune time to address these. Creating a task force comprising representatives from both groups to discuss and propose solutions can lead to improved communication and collaboration, benefiting the entire school community.

Maintaining Vision

During the Neutral Zone, it is crucial to keep the vision for the change effort uppermost in people's minds. Some individuals may be tempted to revert to familiar but outdated ways of working. Regularly reminding everyone of the reasons behind the change and the benefits it will bring can help maintain focus and motivation. Highlighting successes and progress, no matter how small, can reinforce the positive aspects of the transition.

A clear and compelling vision acts as a guiding star during the uncertainties of the Neutral Zone. Leaders should communicate this vision consistently and in various formats to ensure it is understood and embraced by all. This might include vision statements, inspirational talks, and visual representations of the future state. Stories of early successes and positive impacts can help to bring the vision to life and keep people motivated and aligned with the overall goals.

For example, in a nonprofit organization transitioning to a new service delivery model, leaders can maintain the vision by regularly sharing updates on how the new model is improving client outcomes. Success stories, data highlights, and testimonials from clients and staff can reinforce the vision and help everyone see the tangible benefits of the changes.

Effective Communication

Establishing new communication channels ensures that everyone stays informed. Clear and frequent communication can prevent the spread of rumors and maintain trust. For example, if there is uncertainty about a key partnership, sharing this information transparently with stakeholders can prevent anxiety and speculation. Regular updates—whether through newsletters, meetings, or digital platforms—help keep everyone on the same page and foster a sense of inclusion.

Communication during the Neutral Zone should be two-way, allowing for feedback and questions from employees. Leaders should be open to listening and responding to concerns, demonstrating that they value input and are willing to make adjustments based on feedback. This can help to build trust and engagement, ensuring that everyone feels involved and informed throughout the transition.

In a corporate setting, for instance, establishing an internal communication platform where employees can ask questions, share concerns, and receive timely updates can significantly enhance transparency and trust. Regularly scheduled town hall meetings or Q&A sessions with leadership can also provide opportunities for direct communication and feedback.

Framing Change Efforts

Aligning all change initiatives with the overall vision and outcomes helps people see the bigger picture and understand how their efforts contribute to the collective goal. This alignment can also inspire new ideas and approaches. For instance, if a key aspect of the vision is improved community health, framing individual projects within this context can help staff and stakeholders see the broader impact of their work.

Framing change efforts in terms of the overall vision helps to create a sense of purpose and direction. It connects individual tasks and projects to the larger goals, making them more meaningful and motivating. Leaders should regularly communicate how specific initiatives contribute to the broader vision and celebrate milestones and achievements that demonstrate progress towards these goals.

For example, in a company implementing a new sustainability initiative, framing each project within the broader context of the company's environmental goals can help employees see how their efforts contribute to the overall mission. Celebrating achievements, such as reductions in energy consumption or successful recycling programs, can further reinforce this connection and motivate continued efforts.

Monitoring and Feedback

Regularly checking in with those affected by the change allows for timely adjustments and keeps everyone engaged. Feedback mechanisms, such as surveys, focus groups, and one-on-one meetings, can provide valuable insights into how the transition is progressing and where additional support might be needed. For those not involved in daily operations, periodic update meetings can keep them informed and involved.

Ongoing monitoring and feedback are crucial for identifying and addressing issues as they arise. Leaders should establish clear channels for feedback and make it easy for employees to share their thoughts and concerns. This might involve setting up anonymous feedback systems, regular check-ins, or dedicated points of contact for specific issues. By actively seeking and responding to feedback, leaders can ensure that the transition remains on track and that any problems are addressed promptly.

In healthcare settings, for instance, regular feedback from staff and patients during the implementation of new care protocols can provide valuable insights into what is working and what needs adjustment. Using this feedback to make real-time changes can improve the effectiveness of the transition and ensure that the new protocols meet the needs of both staff and patients.

Education and Awareness

Educating people about the nature of the Neutral Zone and what to expect can reduce anxiety and confusion. Providing training on new processes, roles, and expectations helps individuals understand the transition and their place within it. Workshops, seminars, and informational sessions can equip people with the knowledge and skills they need to navigate this phase successfully.

Education and awareness efforts should be comprehensive and ongoing, ensuring that everyone has the information and support they need to adapt to the changes. This might involve training sessions, informational materials, and regular updates on the progress of the transition. Leaders should also provide opportunities for employees to ask questions and seek clarification, ensuring that they feel informed and prepared for the changes ahead.

For example, in a university undergoing a major curriculum overhaul, providing faculty and staff with detailed training on the new curriculum, along with regular updates and opportunities for discussion, can help them adapt to the changes more effectively. Creating a resource hub with training materials, FAQs, and support contacts can also provide ongoing support and information.

Encouraging Creativity

The Neutral Zone is a fertile ground for creativity. With old rules no longer applying, there is room for innovative thinking and problem-solving. Encouraging people to explore new ideas and perspectives can lead to breakthrough solutions. Techniques such as unstructured brainstorming sessions, role-playing, and viewing problems from different angles can foster this creative process. For instance, having team members draw their vision for the future can reveal new insights and ideas.

Creativity and innovation are essential for navigating the uncertainties of the Neutral Zone. Leaders should create an environment that encourages experimentation and risk-taking, allowing employees to explore new ideas and approaches. This might involve setting up innovation labs, running hackathons, or encouraging cross-functional collaboration. By fostering a culture of creativity, leaders can tap into the collective intelligence of their teams and develop innovative solutions to the challenges they face.

In the context of a tech company developing new products, creating a dedicated innovation space where employees can experiment with new ideas and technologies can lead to significant breakthroughs. Encouraging a fail-fast mentality, where quick experimentation and learning from failures are valued, can also foster a more innovative and dynamic environment.

Stage Three: The Beginning

The final stage, "The Beginning," is when people start to embrace new ways of working. This stage requires a comprehensive implementation plan that includes communication, training, incentives, and rituals. Ensuring a successful transition to this stage involves addressing the diverse needs and perspectives of different stakeholders.


During this stage, communication should be evocative and aimed at raising energy and promoting action. Diverse voices should share their perspectives to demonstrate widespread commitment. Effective communication involves not just sharing information but also inspiring and motivating people to engage with the new reality. Using a variety of media, such as videos, charts, and bulletin boards, can help convey complex ideas and keep everyone informed.

Communication during the Beginning stage should be dynamic and engaging, capturing the excitement and potential of the new way of working. Leaders should use storytelling and visual aids to bring the vision to life, showing how the changes will positively impact individuals and the organization as a whole. Regular updates and progress reports can help to keep the momentum going and ensure that everyone is aligned with the overall goals.

In a large corporation rolling out a new global strategy, for example, using multimedia presentations, success stories, and regular CEO updates can help maintain high levels of engagement and enthusiasm. Encouraging employees to share their own success stories and experiences can also create a sense of shared purpose and community.


Identifying the new skills and knowledge needed for the new beginning is crucial. Training programs should focus on both understanding the new context and developing specific skills required for new roles. For example, case managers might need training on interdisciplinary collaboration and holistic assessments. Providing hands-on workshops, online courses, and peer mentoring can help equip staff with the necessary competencies.

Training during the Beginning stage should be comprehensive and tailored to the specific needs of different groups. This might involve a mix of formal training sessions, on-the-job training, and continuous learning opportunities. Leaders should also provide support and resources for employees to develop new skills and adapt to their new roles. This might include access to online learning platforms, mentorship programs, and opportunities for professional development.

In the context of a manufacturing company implementing new technologies, offering a blend of hands-on training, online modules, and mentorship can help employees develop the skills needed to operate and maintain the new equipment. Continuous learning opportunities, such as advanced training programs and certification courses, can also support long-term skill development.


Aligning rewards with the new way of working is essential. Public recognition, involvement in special projects, and opportunities for professional development can motivate people to embrace change. For instance, recognizing teachers who create welcoming environments for parents and other family members can reinforce desired behaviors. Similarly, sending involved parents to workshops or site visits can validate their contributions and encourage continued engagement.

Incentives should be meaningful and aligned with the goals of the new beginning. This might involve creating new performance metrics and reward systems that recognize and reward behaviors that support the new way of working. Leaders should also consider non-monetary incentives, such as opportunities for career advancement, additional responsibilities, and public recognition. By aligning incentives with the new goals, leaders can motivate employees to embrace and support the changes.

For example, in a sales organization transitioning to a new customer relationship management (CRM) system, recognizing and rewarding employees who effectively use the new system and achieve positive results can reinforce the desired behaviors. Offering bonuses, promotions, and public recognition for top performers can also motivate others to adapt to the new system.


Symbols and rituals can dramatize new expectations and reinforce the values underlying the change. Logos, team apparel, and regular retreats can serve as powerful symbols of the new culture and goals. Sharing meals, celebrating milestones, and holding reflection sessions can help teams connect on a personal level and reinforce the sense of collective effort.

Rituals play a crucial role in embedding new values and behaviors within the organization. Leaders should create opportunities for employees to come together and celebrate successes, reflect on progress, and build a sense of community. This might involve organizing regular team-building events, holding ceremonies to mark key milestones, and creating visual symbols that represent the new way of working. These rituals help to create a sense of belonging and reinforce the shared commitment to the new goals.

In a healthcare organization, for instance, holding regular reflection sessions where staff can share their experiences and learnings from the implementation of new care protocols can foster a sense of shared purpose and continuous improvement. Celebrating milestones, such as achieving patient care targets or successful accreditation, can also reinforce the positive aspects of the changes and motivate continued efforts.

Throughout this stage, recognizing and celebrating small successes helps to build momentum and sustain engagement. By addressing the diverse needs and perspectives of different stakeholders, leaders can facilitate a smoother transition into the new organizational reality.


Relevance of "Transitions" in 2024


William Bridges' "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes," first published in 1990, presents a framework for understanding and managing personal and organizational transitions. Despite being over three decades old, the core principles outlined in the book continue to hold significant relevance in 2024. This essay explores why Bridges' concepts remain pertinent in contemporary times and examines potential areas where the framework might require adaptation or augmentation to address the complexities of today's world.


Why "Transitions" Remains Relevant in 2024


1. Timeless Psychological Insights


Bridges’ model is fundamentally rooted in psychological processes that are timeless. Human responses to change—such as resistance, confusion, and renewal—are intrinsic to our nature. The three stages of transition: Ending, Neutral Zone, and New Beginning, encapsulate universal experiences of loss, ambiguity, and adaptation. These stages are as applicable today as they were in 1990 because the underlying human emotions and reactions to change have not altered.


2. Applicability Across Contexts


One of the strengths of Bridges' model is its versatility. Originally applied to organizational transitions, the principles have been successfully extended to personal life changes, such as career shifts, relationship transitions, and personal growth. In 2024, with the increasing prevalence of remote work, global team dynamics, and frequent career changes, the need for effective transition management is more pronounced. Bridges' model provides a robust framework for navigating these varied contexts.


3. Increasing Pace of Change


The pace of change has accelerated dramatically since 1990, driven by technological advancements, globalization, and socio-economic shifts. Organizations and individuals are constantly adapting to new technologies, market conditions, and societal expectations. Bridges' insights into managing the human side of change are invaluable in helping people and organizations cope with the rapid succession of transitions that characterize modern life.


4. Focus on the Human Element


Modern change management theories increasingly emphasize the importance of the human element in successful transformations. Bridges' model, with its focus on the emotional and psychological aspects of change, aligns well with this contemporary understanding. Leaders and managers today recognize that addressing the human side of change is critical for achieving sustainable results, making Bridges' work more relevant than ever.


5. Strategies for Effective Transition Management


Bridges offers practical strategies for managing each stage of transition, such as recognizing and mourning losses in the Ending phase, providing support and structure in the Neutral Zone, and celebrating new beginnings. These strategies are timeless tools that can be adapted to various scenarios, helping leaders and individuals navigate transitions effectively.


Why "Transitions" Might Need Adaptation in 2024

1. Complexity of Modern Transitions


The nature of transitions has become more complex in 2024. Globalization, digital transformation, and interconnected economies mean that changes often have far-reaching and multifaceted impacts. While Bridges’ model provides a strong foundation, additional layers of complexity might require more nuanced approaches. For instance, managing transitions in a global virtual team involves considerations that were less prominent in 1990, such as cultural differences and time zone challenges.


2. Integration of Technology


Technology plays a crucial role in modern transitions, influencing how changes are implemented and experienced. Tools for virtual collaboration, digital communication platforms, and artificial intelligence have transformed the landscape of change management. Adapting Bridges' model to incorporate the role of technology in facilitating and managing transitions can enhance its applicability. For example, leveraging digital platforms for communication and support during transitions can address the unique challenges of today's connected world.


3. Diversity and Inclusion


Today's workforce is more diverse than ever, with greater awareness and emphasis on inclusion and equity. Managing transitions in a diverse environment requires sensitivity to the varied experiences and perspectives of different demographic groups. While Bridges' model addresses universal psychological processes, integrating insights from diversity and inclusion can make the framework more relevant. Understanding how different groups might experience and navigate transitions can lead to more effective and inclusive change management strategies.


4. Sustainability and Ethical Considerations


In 2024, there is a heightened awareness of sustainability and ethical considerations in organizational practices. Managing transitions with a focus on environmental impact, social responsibility, and ethical conduct is increasingly important. Adapting Bridges' model to incorporate these considerations can ensure that transitions align with contemporary values and expectations. For instance, transitions involving shifts to more sustainable practices or ethical business models require specific strategies to address potential resistance and foster commitment.


5. Rapid Iterations and Agile Methodologies


Modern organizations often operate with agile methodologies, characterized by rapid iterations and continuous improvement. Traditional linear models of transition might need to be adapted to fit more iterative and flexible approaches. Integrating principles from agile frameworks with Bridges' model can enhance its relevance, providing a more dynamic and responsive approach to managing transitions. For example, adopting a phased approach with regular feedback loops can help organizations navigate transitions more effectively in fast-paced environments.


William Bridges' "Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes" remains a seminal work with enduring relevance in 2024. Its insights into the psychological aspects of change and practical strategies for managing transitions continue to provide valuable guidance for individuals and organizations alike. However, the evolving complexity of modern transitions, the integration of technology, considerations of diversity and inclusion, sustainability, and agile methodologies suggest that Bridges' model can benefit from thoughtful adaptation.


By integrating contemporary insights and approaches, we can enhance the applicability and effectiveness of Bridges' framework, ensuring it continues to provide robust support for navigating the transitions that define our increasingly dynamic world. This blend of timeless psychological principles with modern considerations makes "Transitions" a valuable resource for managing change in both personal and professional realms.



William Bridges' three-stage model provides a valuable framework for managing transitions in complex change efforts. By understanding and addressing the psychological aspects of each stage—The Ending, The Neutral Zone, and The Beginning—leaders can support individuals and groups in navigating the challenges of change. Effective communication, empathetic listening, strategic planning, and the use of rituals and symbols are key strategies for ensuring successful transitions. As demonstrated in programs like Healthy Start, these principles can be applied across various contexts to facilitate meaningful and lasting change.

By focusing on the human side of change and recognizing the emotional and psychological impacts of transitions, leaders can create more resilient and adaptive organizations. This holistic approach to change management not only helps individuals and teams navigate the uncertainties of transition but also fosters a culture of continuous improvement and innovation. As organizations face an ever-changing landscape, the ability to manage transitions effectively will be a crucial determinant of long-term success and sustainability.

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