Thursday

Transformation or change?

Culture does not change because we desire to change it. Culture changes when the organization is transformed; the culture reflects the realities of people working together every day. - Frances Hesselbein
Looking across the last 25 or 30 years, there have been SO many "methodology du jour" recipes for success, e.g., TQM (total quality management), Quality Work Circles, Structured Systems Analysis, Hammer & Champy's version of BPR ("don't automate - obliterate!), business reengineering, lean / six sigma, Agile (and many variants therein), etc, etc, etc. It's always been way too easy for a charismatic but mediocre "leader" (truly, more of a salesman) to learn a new set of terminology, catchy slogans and lesson plans and declare him-(or her)-self to be the messiah of truly functional and happy organizations. After you've lived through a couple of dozen of these, it's very easy to develop "breakthrough methodology fatigue", and start eyeing any "new" approach with a skeptical, if not jaundiced, perspective.

The terms "transformation" and "change" truly overlap in literal definition; we tend, though, to carry our own associations with each. Transformation is definitely the more ambitious sounding term -- but the vagueness continually drive our attempts to characterize the differences. It's important that we bear in mind that the definitions and distinctions usually described are far more likely to be based on our own associations with each word rather than on any formal definition. That doesn't devalue these definitions -- but it's good to remember if you see differences in the definitions, and none seem to be precisely what you think they should be.

A number of the projects I've led have spanned global organizations, hundreds of people working in dozens of countries, multiple cultures, customs and differing legal constraints. Before leading such projects and programs, I was a participant in several of these. A crucial lesson learned is that simply rolling out changes and expecting success is wildly naive and generally doomed to failure. We tend to talk about "change management" as the overarching umbrella that encompasses extensive planning, outreach, communications, discovery of concerns / objections / potential points of failure, addressing fears and resistance, developing a shared vision, communicating valid and compelling reasons for cooperation, recognizing sacrifice and incremental success, measuring outcomes in a shared and mutually understood and agreed upon fashion, being able to declare an end-point and successful conclusion -- at least of a major phase -- without being disingenuous, examining what went well and what could be done better next time, etc.

I'd suggest that an effective operating understanding of "change" vs. transformation could be this: "change" can be a somewhat mechanical implementation of new or different ways to doing something, while transformation is more likely to be a sweeping approach to altering a culture, or parts of it, possibly even to parts of its value system, to embrace such a change and help it become self-perpetuating. When the need for significant change is identified, it's generally naive to think it will succeed without transformation as well.

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