Change vs. Transformation: What’s the Difference?
Last week, on the Lean Six Sigma Worldwide discussion group, Gaurav Navula (CEO of Perky Pat India) asked us to reflect on the difference between change and transformation. Change management was a major thrust in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, but you don’t hear as much about it anymore. Today, the tools of change management (making the business case, aligning strategy with tactics, engaging stakeholders, instituting goal-directed training and education programs, etc.) have faded into the everyday landscape of management. Leaders seem to be focused more on “surviving and thriving” in the midst of rapid and disruptive innovation, which enhances the importance of transformation.
But what’s the difference? Just a couple months ago, Ron Ashkenas (on the Harvard Business Review blog) asserted that we don’t know the difference: “We really do know how to execute discrete changes. What we know much less about is how to engineer a transformation.”
But I think we do know how to engineer a transformation, and we can use this recipe. I’ll explain more towards the end of this post, but it acknowledges the relationship between larger-scale changes and transformation: that change is required for transformation, and all transformation involves change, but not all change is transformational. This is based on the idea that all observable changes come with “shifts in state” – from the quality management perspective, you can think of these as observed changes in system performance (cost savings, more efficient or effective use of time, increasing throughput, enhancing return on investment).
What this says is: transformation is what you get when you adjust the frame of reference that you observe the world with, and then add to that new perspective the product of all the shifts in state that have occurred as a result of incremental changes. I say “when you adjust the reference frame,” but that’s somewhat misleading. Usually there is some sort of transformational experience… an “a-ha” moment or event… where the scales fall from your eyes and you see the world in a completely different way. The shift in reference frame always involves relationships: either your relationship to other people or other groups, or your relationship to yourself and how you see yourself, or maybe both.
“My sense is that there’s an underlying semantic problem, stemming from confusion between what constitutes “change” versus “transformation.” Many managers don’t realize that the two are not the same. And while we’ve actually come a long way in learning how to manage change, we continue to struggle with transformation.” — Ron Ashkenas, HBR blog
Here are some of the qualitative descriptions that have been offered to further articulate the differences between change and transformation. Notice that they do not conflict with the expression for transformation above.
- Finite initiatives which may or may not be cross-cutting (HBR)
- Desire to improve the past directs what we do (Mohanty)
- Makes the system better (Mohanty)
- Any time an organization asks its people or systems to stop, start, or execute in a new way a process, behavior or location of performanc (Holtz)
- Making setups in different format within the given system to achieve improvements in performance (Bob Matthew)
- Incremental (Anand)
- A portfolio of open-ended initiatives which are necessarily cross-cutting (HBR)
- The future directs your actions and only the limits of imagination and courage constrain possibilities (Mohanty)
- Makes a better system (Mohanty)
- The base of transformational is the word “formation” – the stuff things are made of or the structure – that needs to change for the change to be transformational. (du Plessis)
- Encompasses bigger, more radical shifts (Holtz)
- Makes a total change of system, procedure and a total mindset to get a better transparency and communication within the process owners including the customers. (Bob Matthew)
- Should be informed by strategy (Kshirsagar)
- Transformation is not a preference; it’s a necessity as a result of resistance to change. (Aydin)
- Major; result of many changes (Anand)
Think about the last time you experienced a transformative change, perhaps even in your personal life. For example, think of a time when you were able to truly and completely forgive someone for some way they had wronged you. There were certainly a collection of changes in state that occurred — prior to, during, and after the forgiveness experience. But as a result, didn’t you also come to see the world in a completely different way? Your frame of reference with respect to that person… and probably, other people you have relationships with… also shifted.