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Why Change and Transformation are two very different things.

While change and transformation are often used as synonyms, these are both very important but different journeys to embark on. You must understand the difference first to know what is wanted or needed.

We’ve all seen this many times: the new leader comes in and wants change. Processes must be leaner, customer response times must be faster, and services must be cheaper. Change is often, if not always, characterized by ‘-er’ words; it looks to the past and wants to make things better, faster, or cheaper. And with that perspective, the most you usually achieve is a future that is incrementally better than the past because change has its anchor in the past.

Transformation requires something completely different. Starting a transformation requires anchoring yourself in the future: a critical but tricky process. When you anchor yourself in the future, the past can inform rather than constrain, as you act in ways that are different from the past to create that transformational future. It does not mean that you should not respect it. Honoring what was achieved in the past is essential. Then, you let it go and build a future vision of how things should be.

A vision is often phrased strategically and looks far into the future. And with that, it is not always easy for each employee to understand how their role, task, and talent contribute to that vision. As the north star can shine bright in our skies, every colleague must see your vision as their north star. All must see, understand, and connect the value of their work to the vision before they can follow it and be motivated by it.

Your vision must inspire people; they must fall in love with it and feel ‘I want that future’. Your vision must create an inner shift that cannot be undone. Such a shift will make your colleagues across the organization want to pull today into that future, rather than attempt to push the baggage of the past forward into a future of incremental improvement.

Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that one is more meaningful than the other. Organizations need change or transformation - each requiring unique mindsets, skills, and approaches for success - in a given scenario.

So, when organizations have a problem, and I mean a big real problem, one of the first things leaders likely turn to is organizational change. Everything changes: reporting lines change, layers are reduced or added, job descriptions are overhauled, new positions are created, KPIs and performance management are looked at, etc. Many things are happening, everything seems in flux, and people are busy. Unfortunately, this is often managed as a technocratic exercise. With such organizational change, everything has changed, but crucially, nothing is different. Nothing has shifted. People still relate similarly to the situation, company, job, colleagues, and work. In a worst-case scenario, people even freeze and wait it out.

With true transformation, almost nothing has to change. Everything looks the same, and yet, everything is different. So how can that be? And what is that, this difference? The only thing that must change is how people relate to what is happening, perceive it, and operate according to it. It is the people’s relationship to the situation and their ownership of it. And also how situations occur to them. A certain situation that occurred to them as a significant threat in the past is now seen as a gap where they can provide a solution. Opportunities that were previously overlooked because people were not given the opportunity and ways to share are now pointed out and captured.

Organizational change often entails large-scale projects that keep managers (and consultants!) busy over months and years.

In contrast, transformation requires very clear hands-on leadership in the moment, in relevant situations. Most of this happens in the day-to-day, in what we call business interventions.

Organizational change can bring you progress, but only transformation will create the breakthrough you and your organization need to stay strong in a world that is only becoming more volatile and uncertain. It will create resilience and make possible what was thought impossible before. And who doesn’t want to work in a place like that?