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Transformation: What Is It, Really?!

It was inevitable, wasn’t it?

I tried so hard, for so long to avoid using the word “transformation.” Yet, I knew it was merely a matter of time…

Until what, you ask?! The word transformation started creeping into our vocabulary (again). This time it was in the context of “Next Generation IT.”

I wish we could say “OK, let’s transform into the organization that we’re intending to become,” we press a button and then watch it happen for us.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t work. What does work?

C’mon over here and let’s chat about that for a bit, OK?

Because we can’t really talk about that, until we get straight about what transformation is (and isn’t)!

Transform WHAT?

This is what grates on me. It’s the question that rarely (if ever, really) gets asked.

The common sense answer is “well, transform the IT organization, of course” <scowl added to emphasize what a stupid, obvious question this is>

At some level, I’ll grant that anyone who might be in a position to answer that question could reply that the organization that they belong to is the target of the transformation. While true, at least to a certain extent, it’s only a portion of what needs to “transform.”

Back to Basics

First, let’s examine the definition of transform:

Transform – (v.) to change (something) completely and usually in a good way.

In my mind, this is good, but only gets us started. Frankly, I think a lot of the synonyms are better. Why?

Well, at the risk of being annoying, let’s ask another question…

Why Transform?

It’s really important to understand the context for a transformation initiative. If that isn’t established in the beginning, you’re going to pay a high price for that later — potentially jeopardizing the entire initiative.

At the core, you must be able to answer the questions:

Who is calling for the transformation?

Why is a transformation required?

If you cannot answer these questions, you’re either not ready to start OR you’re already headed towards a failure. Why do I say that?

I’m going to further annoy by prompting another question…

How Do You Know You’ve “Transformed”?!

For the moment, let’s grant ourselves a reprieve from having to answer the previous questions and assume that we have a sufficient answer. Now, we find ourselves at the end of our “transformation journey.” My question to you is:

How do we know we’ve transformed?!

That’s a decent question, but perhaps a little imprecise. How about:

What result(s) can we point to that demonstrate that a transformation has actually occurred?

Because, in the end, as a good steward of organizational resources, we want to be able to go back to the person who funded/supported us during this time and show her that we did good and got the job done.

Keeping Up Appearances

So what are those things that you used as the justification or evidence that you got the job done? Let’s list a few common candidates:

  • New/Changed vision/mission statements
  • New/Changed organizational structure/hierarchy
  • Reductions in force
  • Meeting revised OPEX/CAPEX targets
  • Increase in customer satisfaction or Net Promoter scores
  • Rollout of a communication program

I could keep going, but I think you get the picture.

So, if the person/team leading this “transformation” came to you (as the sponsor we mentioned earlier) and stated that “these are the things we’ve done, we’ve been transformed!”

Would that be sufficient to you? Would you feel that your money had been well invested?

Depending upon your frame of reference, it might — but there’s no guarantee it will!

This is exactly why it’s essential to understand who is calling for the transformation and why they feel it’s needed.

The entries on the list I started building above are examples of change, not (necessarily) examples of transformation.

Why is that? Well…

The Heart of Transformation

Earlier this week, I tweeted:

That Tweet…

As I state in the tweet, in order to have transformed, some relationship needs to alter. Sounds a little obtuse, doesn’t it?! Well, not really and here’s why:

Everything comes down to people and how they relate!

Relationship plays out on a number of different fronts, because there is no one way in which people relate to everything. People have a relationship to (their):

  • Co-workers/peers
  • Customers
  • Industry
  • Organization/Employer
  • Friends
  • Families
  • Nation
  • and even themselves!

This is not even close to an exhaustive list, but it really helps drive my point home.

If a persons relationship to an area has not been altered, no transformation has occurred. All you have done is introduce change!

The Power of Perception

How do you know you were successful? How you (or your team) are perceived (internally and/or externally) has altered. The conversation that others are having about you (or you about others!) is different. It doesn’t have to be “from zero to hero” or it’s such an impressive performance that someone should be throwing you a parade, but the character/tone of it should (more or less) reflect that something fundamental has altered. Let’s examine some (likely) common scenarios.

Scenario #1

You formed “process tiger teams,” collected statistics and optimized your internal processes which reduced processing time for orders by two days. You reorganized to decrease your head count by 5%, approved a plan to handle 20% more work with a flat budget for you next fiscal year.

Yet, your business sponsor wonders “why are they always so negative?,” “why can’t we get the new application we asked for quicker?” The senior vice president in charge of your division “doesn’t see the kind or quality of results she expected” to get from your continuous service improvement (CSI) program.

Yes, you’ve taken actions, but this is not an example of transformation.

Scenario #2

You put up posters with your new values, hold “Town Hall” meetings about the organizational changes you’re going through, offer “free lunches with the leadership” to employees, take surveys on “cultural climate and employee morale.”

Yet, over the cubicle walls, in the lunch hall and by the (proverbial) “water cooler,” employees are talking about “how to ride out the storm,” “keeping their head down” and “waiting for things to get back to normal.” There is an unspoken tension throughout your organization.

Yes, you’ve taken actions, but this is not an example of transformation.

Scenario #3

You make announcements about the new direction for your organization, you hold “Town Hall” meetings about the changes you’re confronting and the consequences of failing, you conduct “brown bag” sessions with employees, you select employees from each department to lead initiatives to shore up morale and collect feedback/recommendations.

Employees are talking about how they appreciate someone considering how changes impact them before they are implemented, customers talk about how they can see changes in the quality of service and are more satisfied with your organization as a service provider.

Here we see an example of where you’ve taken actions AND is an example of transformation.

What’s Different?

That’s really a great question.

In Scenario #1, you organized your teams and produced some “real results!” Yet, you and the team still fell short in the eyes of key stakeholders. Why? Maybe you just worked on the wrong processes or didn’t have an effective marketing plan in place.

In Scenario #2, you did the things to help “bring people along and keep them informed,” but evidence of fear and apathy are still widespread. Why? Maybe you just didn’t properly/fully implement your Organizational Change Management (or OCM-styled) program.

In fact, there are any number of potential “faults” one could find with how an organization went about trying to accomplish something. Maybe, just maybe, the actions you took were appropriate and effective!

The thing that is different about Scenario #3 is that there’s a level of engagement suggesting that something about the relationship has altered. We may not know what that is yet, but there’s a tangible, qualitative difference that is consistent with the definition offered earlier.

An critical thing to remember here is that we’re not trying to alter how others perceive us or just change the circumstances.

We’re actually out to alter how we (both ourselves and others) relate to each other.

That’s what can cause a change in perception that will stand the test of time.

How Transformation Can Show Itself

In the transformation work that I do, people generally report:

  • Having a higher degree of alignment with others;
  • A new, enhanced sense of being connected to and ability to relate to others;
  • Deeper levels of trust, communication and collaboration than were previously available;
  • Being more satisfied with what they’re working on and how that fits with some shared accomplishment being pursued.

In fact, you might still find yourself doing many of the same things you were doing prior to the “transformation”! The key thing to remember here is that it’s not about what you do (i.e. the activities themselves), but about the relationship (who) with others and the context (why) in which it occurs.


When you get right down to it, transformation is simple in concept, but (somewhat) tricky in execution. Not because it’s “hard,” “complex,” or any of the other things we’d normally say make things hard, but because we:

  1. Have little experience in thinking about things and relating to others from this perspective;
  2. Are more comfortable doing process or technology work than we are with people and organizational change;
  3. Look upon the actions we’ve taken as accomplishments, rather than as a part of what it takes to accomplish something.

The key thing to remember about transformation is that in altering a relationship, new opportunities to act and engage become available that were not available before.

It doesn’t have to take a long time or cost a lot of money to transform, but it does take a little effort. The good news is that whatever effort you do expend on it, it’s certainly going to be less costly than a high profile failure putting you and your organization at risk!

If you’re interested in discussing how this fits with what ‘s happening in your organization with me, please let me know. I’d be happy to arrange a short “no strings attached,” exploratory conversation with you.

If you have general questions, questions, comments, or any feedback, please let me know.

I am a social being — you know how to find me, right?! 

Posted In:Org/Personnel Development
Tags Used:Alignment, Apathy, Appearances, Change, Collaboration, Communication, Continuous Improvement, Cultural Change, Cultural Forces, Engagement, Expectation Management, Expectations, Fear, Leadership, Managing Circumstances, Net Promoter, Next Generation IT, OCM, Organizational Culture, Perception, Process Improvement, Relationships, Results, Satisfaction, Shared Accomplishment, Tiger Team, Transformation, Transformation Journey, Trust
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