P>1. Matrix population models are tools for elucidating the association between demographic processes and population dynamics. A large amount of useful theory pivots on the assumption of equilibrium dynamics. The preceding transient is, however, of genuine conservation concern as it encompasses the short-term impact of natural or anthropogenic disturbance on the population. 2. We review recent theoretical advances in deterministic transient analysis of matrix projection models, considering how disturbance can alter population dynamics by provoking a new population trajectory. 3. We illustrate these impacts using plant and vertebrate systems across contiguous and fragmented landscapes. 4. Short-term responses are of fundamental relevance for applied ecology, because the time-scale of transient effects is often similar to the length of many conservation projects. Investigation of the immediate, post-disturbance phase is vital for understanding how population processes respond to widespread disturbance in the short- and into the long term. 5. Synthesis and applications. Transient analysis is critical for understanding and predicting the consequences of management activities. By considering short-term population responses to perturbations, especially in long-lived species, managers can develop more informed strategies for species harvesting or controlling of invasive species.