Transformation vs change – which are you doing?

Ad Esse Consulting transformation vs change illustration

There are many articles and blogs online that outline the differences between change and transformation. Our experience at Ad Esse, working across a number of sectors, is that they continue to be used interchangeably and often inappropriately. We’ll delve a step further than semantics and looks at why the differences are important and why knowing when to adopt change and when you need transformation, can help your organisation succeed.

Change in this context is about fixing or modifying what you have now, about creating a shift in the way things work. Transformation starts with vision and focuses on implementing a portfolio of initiatives, which help you to get there, usually in an innovative or new way. It’s limitless and literally means changing your ‘way’ to something different. A frequently used analogy is that of a butterfly: change would only make a caterpillar a better caterpillar, but it needs transformation to become a butterfly.

All transformation requires change but not all change is transformational

Working as business improvement consultants, we often encounter two common misconstructions:

1. Mixing up the terms

The first is people using the word transformation when they in fact mean change. At best, this can be a fairly harmless mistake. Sometimes this word swapping can even be deliberate, with organisations wanting to avoid using the word ‘change’, due to previous change initiatives and perceived change fatigue. It can be more harmful when the word swapping results in expectations not being met. Calling your initiative a transformation means people expect transformational results. When they’re not delivered this can lead to frustration, and possibly further change initiatives being started, with similar limited results.

2. Failing to transform as needed

The second is when organisations engage in change initiatives when they need to transform. This can have a huge and sometimes crippling impact, as it means that organisations are simply not realising the level of change that they need to in order to succeed, and sometimes survive.

One example is Blockbuster Video, who changed their business to include online ordering and postal delivery of DVDs, six years after Netflix had started to offer this service. However, they failed to take a whole business transformation approach, they kept the bricks and mortar stores which ultimately contributed to them declaring bankruptcy in 2011.

Understanding the distinction and being clear on whether change or transformation is required will maximise the likelihood of success for your organisation. Whatever industry you are in, transformation and change will always feature high on your list of priorities, but there is a good way and bad way of doing each.

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