Change & Transformation – My version of the story

10 years ago Harvard Business Review published Kotter’s classic article, “Why.” And although his suggestions for how to improve the odds have been widely accepted, the success rate of major corporate change programs remains essentially unchanged.

For quite some time since I am involved in large corporations and various Government organizations   in my corporate career as a Project Manager, Program Manager and transformation leader I was managing CHANGE or TRANSFORMATION Projects and  Programs. Although obviously there are similarities between the two, there are also some major distinctions that I have tried to differentiate as per my experience and discussion with my colleagues and experts. Knowing the difference is really vital as it gives you clarity that now you are in change or you are in transformation. To me it gives clear different approach to manage each one. I will try to write few in my upcoming articles however I will define the difference between the two based on my professional experience.

“Change management” means implementing limited initiatives, which may or may not cut across the organization. The focus is on executing a well-defined shift in the way things work. It’s not easy, but we do know a lot more today about what to do.

CHANGE requires becoming familiar with the current situation, and working to make things better, faster, cheaper etc. The past is the fundamental reference point and actions are intended to alter what already happened. The success of a CHANGE initiative is judged by efficiencies and economies that are realized at the end of our effort, compared with when you started. When you choose CHANGE, your future is really a reconditioned or improved version of the past.

Transformation is slightly different. Unlike change management, it doesn’t focus on a few discrete, well-defined shifts, but rather on a portfolio of initiatives, which are interdependent or intersecting. More importantly, the overall goal of transformation is not just to execute a defined change — but to reinvent the organization and discover a new or revised business model based on a vision for the future. It’s much more unpredictable, iterative, and experimental. It entails much higher risk. And even if successful change management leads to the execution of certain initiatives within the transformation portfolio, the overall transformation could still fail.

TRANSFORMATION is an assertion that our actions today create our future tomorrow. The future can be described and realized when you free yourself from constraints of the past. In transformation, you design your future and invent ways to bring it about. Transformation doesn’t describe the future by referencing the past (better, faster, or cheaper); it births a future that is entirely new. Like CHANGE, TRANSFORMATION also begins with firmly grasping the current state of affairs — the As Is of the organization. Without understanding of our As Is, we’re delusional about the future from the outset. When you choose the path of TRANSFORMATION, it becomes easier to leave the past behind after thoroughly considering the As Is. You permit yourselves to envision the To be state ; you make specific changes and adopt continuously, to ensure the desired future state. However it keeps on changing until you reach the desired state.

There are few indications that you are doing change or you are involved in transformation.

Change is by circumstances & Transformation is by choice.

The circumstances play a vital role for change. It could be a regulator who may apply a new policy on an insurance company or a bank in this case it becomes inevitable for the organization to comply and follow the directions.

The other example could be when the environment is changed, for example the construction industry in GCC is effected in general and in Saudi Arabia in particular due to oil prices and government spending shift.

So the organizations have to change in order to move towards different areas or streams in order to survive.

Transformation on the other hand is by choice. Once a visionary leader or board decides that now the organization has to change. He puts forth a compelling vision and makes a decision to transform.  The Example would be transforming of General electric by Jack Welsh.

In Saudi Arabia many of the organizations in private sector and of course many departments are changing due to Vision 2030 announced by the Government.

Past is a reference point in change while transformation is a new beginning

For change there is always a reference point that we have improved a process from this %age of efficiency to the next level, we have changed this many systems or we have upgraded from this version to this version. This is the change as it will always have a reference to past.

In transformation you do not have a reference point and you define a vision and this vision becomes something that you pursue.  This is a new beginning and you carry on and improve on it. You adjust this as you are on the move. So it is a moving target until you hit.

Change is incremental while Transformation is a redefine

CHANGE can be incremental and it can be subtle or it can be huge, but it must be consciously sustained. The set point for change is before the change occurred. Change is maintained with thought, effort and persistence.

TRANSFORMATION on the other hand, is always big because it requires a shift so drastic that a new set point is created. Transformation is a shift in consciousness. Transformation creates a new set point. In fact, transformation creates a new reality.

Change is incremental & Transformation is redefining the organization.

Change is incremental and builds on existing knowledge, practice and ideas. Continuing research in an academic discipline or R&D usually fall into this category.  Some examples of change would be the usual continuous improvement methods tried in business, introducing a faster model of a particular car by changing specifications, introducing new features in a phone etc.

Transformation is change that invents or redefines a whole field, paradigm, process or industry and is a ‘quantum leap’ beyond what currently exists. To be truly transformation, it must gain traction and become an accepted practice in the area (which can take time). Sometimes a transformational change alters the whole way an industry/discipline operates, otherwise in itself it may create a whole new industry/discipline.  Some examples of transformation would include the development of steam engine, electricity generation/distribution/utilization, invention of IPhone that redefine the phone concept.

Change is controlled & Transformation controls the organization.

Change in any organization is controlled and the pace of change is usually decided by the organization. The organization willingly can have impact on the change and its pace.

On the other hand transformation is usually controlling the organization. It decides the flow and actions that will be taken by the organization.

Change can be reversed & Transformation is irreversible easily.

Change is something that can be purposefully or randomly reversed. Moving an office is change. Transformation is doing something that cannot be randomly or purposefully reversed. It can be modified moving forward in time though. Example is Cooking food. Imagine the ingredients on a table. You leave the room and someone moves them around. You walk back in a put them back to where they were. We have just experienced change.  On the other hand you leave the room and someone bakes the cake. You walk back in and no matter how you treat the food, you cannot get the ingredients back. That’s transformation.

In transformation the shift is significant, usually organizational wide, and will usually have several change programs within it and usually irreversible. Takes a long time to embed and a long time to undo.

So all Transformational programs are change programs but not all change programs are transformational.


Scale is the difference

Change is about altering a thing from a previous version … more, better, different. It is way inferior compared to Transformation.  You may improve the recruitment process and now the recruitment is being done on much improved and rapid pace with better and efficient way. This is the scale of change.

Transformation is a breakthrough at another level. Transformation would be that you set up new concepts of shared service center or customer service and complete restructuring of the HR itself. You change the functions, you change the operating models, you change the processes and even you change the people in HR so now this is transformation. It’s a new possibility than cannot be reached thru Change. It’s a brand new Realm. Change is when something is ‘New, better or improved’. Transformation is operating at a level above this.

For implementing a new process, its important to remove the structures that support the old process. Identify checks to see if new process is followed. Transformation cannot happen suddenly. It undergoes a long process for which anybody would need support and require conscious effort towards it.


Change is by Force Transformation is by Choice.

Change usually is forced and companies are compelled to make the change. As in the previous example if a regulator decides to implement certain policies or an organization decides to change the IT system or ERP it is a change that everyone has to follow.

On the other hand it’s the choice of the organization and its senior management that make a decision that they want to go through the transformation to become different, bigger or diversified. Even if they don’t make the decision to change organization still works properly but the transformation decision is made to take the organization to the next level.

Transformation is at all level & is rigorous, change is rapid and specific

Transformation must take place at all levels in order to be achieved. It isn’t enough to transform only one specific area, function or system of the organization.

The change can be at any specific level. It could be just the change of a system,  a process or any subset of organization.

Transformation often takes place at such a slow rate and on such a subterranean level, it is nearly invisible until you’re on the other side of it. But further investigation reveals a consistency and rigor to the process that is undeniable.

Change usually is fast , rapid and more often is visible and people of the organization are aware of it most of the time as they know that where they are heading.

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