How to Think Clearly About Change and Transformation


Among the current trends in change thought is a lively discussion about the relationship, and the differences, between change and transformation. One common position is that change and transformation are the same, and that the words change and transformation are synonymous. This position represents unclear thinking about change and transformation. The fact is, change and transformation are related, but different, phenomena.

How do I know this? Well, the organizational change management sector informs us that it is always easier to install an institution-wide change than it is to realize an institution-wide transformation. In the spiritual, motivational, and self-help community, the word transformation is typically preferred over the word change because transformation has a transcendent, almost mystical, connotation, while change is earth-bound, specific, and hints that it may require some mundane effort. The folks in the marketing industry clearly grasp the conceptual relationship-but-difference between change and transformation, because who would buy a hair dye that only changes the color of your hair, when you can buy a hair dye that transforms the quality of your life?

Unless, of course, you’re only in the market for a different hair color and not a whole different reality… And that’s my point exactly.

Here we are, friends, in one of my favorite playgrounds: the wonderful world of semantics. Semantics is the study of words and their meaning. Since I value precision of language because it allows us to communicate successfully, let me explain how to think clearly about change and transformation in practical terms that may actually give you some emotional relief.

Change alters one or more individual aspects of the status quo, as well as aspects of one, some, many, or all of the systems that support that status quo. Transformation alters all aspects of the status quo and renders all of the systems that support that status quo irrelevant because they no longer apply.

Many change management professionals use the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly to illustrate this point. The caterpillar undergoes a specific series of changes, and when it’s done it has transformed into something completely different from what it was. Or, if you prefer, think about milk. You can add yummy syrup and change it into chocolate milk, and it will still be milk. But if you churn milk, you will transform it into butter and you cannot then change it back because it has become wholly different. Similarly and on a larger scale, a country that elects its first black or female President, or that legitimizes same-sex marriage, or that institutes universal healthcare, has experienced change. But that country can be said to have experienced true transformation only after it has abolished racial prejudice, eradicated gender bias, and obliterated social discrimination, in all forms and everywhere. For that to happen, the country’s social structures must be replaced with new perspectives that will have far-reaching effects.

So here’s the bottom line:

1. Change is a shift in one or more aspects of the current normal, that may or may not have an effect on other aspects of the current normal. Transformation is the complete and all-encompassing exchange of everything that was, for a totally new reality.

2. Change can stand independently, or change can be the unit of measure of transformation.

3. Not all change produces transformation, but all transformation is the product of change.

As I advise my practical change management clients, don’t make yourself crazy trying to effect transformation if strategic, common-sense, and less extreme change will produce the desired result with less stress and chaos. But if it’s really transformation you’re after, prepare to follow a specific series of changes to a totally new normal where everything – yes, everything – is different from what it used to be.

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