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Why Change and Transformation Are Not Synonymous

Written by Terri Wallin

Having had the privilege of leading large scale initiatives in organizations as a project director and as an executive leader, I’ve concluded that change and transformation are not synonymous. The greatest difference is that with most change it doesn’t require leadership or cultural transformation.  Transformation is dependent upon the leader altering his/her behavior in order for others to follow. The result is a cultural transformation which results in long term sustaining change. 

TransformationThe terms change and transformation are confusing.  If you research dictionary definitions on the two terms, it is not uncommon to have “change” in the definition of transformation. One source quotes the difference in this way: “while all transformation is change, not all change is transformational”[1].

Most definitions articulate transformation as an alteration in appearance, structure, nature, or character. Transformation requires a fundamental alteration of the current state of your organization.  The final outcome is dramatic and completely different from your current organizational state.  Change by contrast is less complex such as a change of clothes, a change in facial expression or changing the spelling of a word.[2]  In organizations a change could be the dress code including requirement to wear a specified uniform or type of clothing.  This change might cause employee resistance, but it doesn’t alter the culture of the organization.

Transformation is deeper and more extensive.  In one resource, organizational transformation is defined as “…a process of profound and radical change that orients an organization in a new direction and takes it to an entirely different level of effectiveness.  Unlike ‘turnaround’ (which implies incremental progress on the same plane).  Transformation implies a basic change of character and little or no resemblance with the past configuration or structure.[3]

So while the term “transformation” is used within definitions of change, it is more comprehensive and very different.  When you think about simple use of change, such as changing a work schedule and instead of being off on Monday you are off on Tuesday, it is a change, but it isn’t an organizational transformation to something dramatically different.

If on the other hand, your organization decides to meet the customers’ needs by servicing customers twenty-four hours a day, many systems within your organization will be altered dramatically to make this transformation possible.  It might require a shift from a physical location(s) to a technological service requiring all operational systems to transform.

This could include online services, chat capabilities, new phone management capabilities, extensive training for staff and managers, different operational procedures, a different service culture, and potentially different services.  All of this would place the organization in a different market position and requires transformational leadership to make it happen.

In organizations we often make incremental changes and wonder why they don’t stick over the long haul.  It is largely due to leadership behavior.  If a leader wants something to be dramatically different and avoid the “flavor of the month”, it needs to start with a clear vision and a change in behavior of the leader.  If there is no vision and/or the leader doesn’t model the new state, there will be no substantive movement favorably toward the vision.

In organizations it is imperative the leader learns to transform him/herself and the culture in order to get fundamentally different results.  Today’s market place is fiercely competitive and incremental change won’t get you long term sustaining results.  Dramatically transforming the way you do business will get you different results.

Once you master the art of transformation, your organization is equipped to replicate transformation over and over through time and keep your business thriving and alive.  What would prevent you from a transformation versus an incremental change?  Why not master transformation today!

Related blog posts:

[1] Survival is Optional: Only Leaders with New Knowledge Can Lead the Transformation, Marcia Daszko and Sheila Sheinberg, PhD, Theory of Transformation Final to Short article April 2005

[2] The Free Dictionary by Farlex

[3] Business Dictionary

One comment

  1. Great distinction between change and transformation, Terri. I love the examples you use to create the picture of how the two are different. I agree with you that, in today’s competitive environment, change is no longer a viable solution/strategy for any organization looking to remain competitive. Transformation is where it’s at!

    Thanks for the well-articulated post!

    Comment by Jackie on August 14, 2013 at 6:39 pm

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