Thinking of Calling Something a Transformation? Don't.

Imagine you see an old friend walking past you on the sidewalk, and you say “Hey! What are you up to?” And he responds, “I’m walking.” 

That's not a helpful response from your friend. Yet that’s the equivalent of calling any program a transformation program. Anytime someone says they are leading a transformation program (or transformation initiative or transformation [any noun]), it’s exactly the same as your friend saying “I’m walking.” But where is your friend going? And how exactly is your organization transforming?

Transformation means nothing. If you’re a business running a program to become more agile, it’s an agile program. If it’s becoming more customer-centered, it’s a customer-centered program.

Many companies label learning and development experiences as “transformations.” Or they say: “our goal is nothing less than the transformation of our company!” Transformation becomes the buzz word, divorced from the destination.

Why so much transformation talk lately? Three theories:

1. Avoiding specificity

First, calling something transformation generally is a great way to avoid specificity about the desired destination. If you shine a spotlight on “transformation,” you cast a shadow over the destination. You don’t have to worry about ending up in a different place than the one you intended. After your program, you’ll definitely be different in some way, as nothing remains completely constant. So you can just point out what you are after the initiative and say, “Success! We’ve transformed!”

2. Sidestepping accountability 

The second theory for transformation overload is that, while there is wide agreement about the fact that the world is changing rapidly, there is little agreement about what to do about it. If you label something transformation, you at least seem like you’re responsive to “our changing times.” Leaders inside companies celebrate learning, experimentation, emergence and agility in the face of a changing context. OK, wonderful. So transform your organization into a place with greater capabilities to be agile. Then you have an agility program, not a transformation program.

3. Disguising change

Third, transformation is just a fancier version of that oldie but goodie: change. Change management and change leadership are terms with a permanent layer of dust on them, overused as they’ve become. But transformation – that’s kind of new. So we slap that new coat of paint on an old change program.

Consultants would rather call something a transformation engagement than a change program because they can charge more. There are four times as many syllables in transformation as there are in change, so that’s roughly a 4X cost increase. (Add VUCA for a 50 percent bonus.)

The next time anyone anywhere mentions a transformation intervention, simply ask two questions:

  1. From what?
  2. To what?

Work especially hard to gain clear agreement on the answer to the second question. Then boil the answer to that question down to a pithy word or two, and rename your program that pithy answer. Then your name will reflect your destination, not your mode of transportation.

This article was first published as a blog on the ASTD Senior Leaders site.