By Adrian Stalham & Jacqueline Shakespeare

Transformation. Possibly the most overused word in business today.

Everything seems to be about transforming, we insist on putting a transformation wrapper around so many things in business. Digital transformation. Operating model transformation. Strategy transformation.  CRM transformation (upgrade and roll out new IT). Data Centre transformation (really, isn’t this just about keeping the lights on?).

This suits the traditional management consultancies, they have built their businesses around advising organisations to lurch from one large transformation to another.

True transformation has its place of course – when is it correctly used. Strategic change, where the essence of the company fundamentally changes in a material way, is true transformational change.

There are some companies who have truly transformed over the last few years. Netflix began as an organisation who posted DVDs to our homes and now streams films. Marvel, founded back in 1939, transformed itself from an organisation who were known for toys and comics to one where most of their net sales now come from licensing and films, ‘The Avengers’ alone made $1.52b in 2012. And remember when Amazon only sold books? Now most of their revenue comes from AWS.

People use the word transformation believing that it gives their work credibility and impact. Ironically, by overusing and incorrectly using it, we are now doing the opposite. People confuse a big difficult project with transformation. In many cases, we are merely playing catch up with our competitors.

In transformations, we define a future state as though it’s a stable place to be and then put all our efforts in following a plan to get there. We may have seen big consultancy Powerpoint slides with caterpillars turning into butterflies. Maybe it’s a goldfish jumping from one fishbowl to another. Metaphors to give us the impression of a titanic transition from one place to another. We create large programmes of change, plan everything to the nth degree to give ourselves an illusion of certainty and go to the Exec., cap in hand, for a big wedge of money.

But we should stop this nonsense.

The metaphors are wrong. The goldfish jumps to a new fishbowl that looks a lot like their old one, it’s just larger. The caterpillar is a steady state, as is the butterfly. By the way, spoiler alert, the butterfly dies soon after. Our aim shouldn’t be to jump from one steady state to another.

The problem with this faux transformation is that we are looking at change all wrong.

  • A transformation often articulates a move from As Is to To Be – the caterpillar to the butterfly.
  • People fit the change around their ‘day jobs’, it’s a side of desk activity.
  • We follow the plan slavishly in a death march.
  • We stop when the funding runs out or the benefits (fail to) materialise.
  • Afterwards, we transition to BAU (business as usual).

All of these things infer stasis. They infer that we will reach somewhere, a destination. When we get there, everything will be good and we can stop all this change.

Programmes are temporary in nature. Funding runs out. The Target Operating Model is implemented. Forget a Target Operating Model, we need a next best Operating Model or an Adaptive Operating Model. The Target Operating model will be 18 months old by the time it is implemented, a commercial lifetime for many companies. The Operations teams eagerly move back to BAU, it means they can stop changing and ‘get on with their real job’ instead. Corporate stasis reigns once more.

And yet stasis is the reason we created a transformation in the first place. The outside world is moving faster than many organisations can cope with. Transformations attempt to catch up on the latency. But by the time we get there, we are already out of date.

But of course, that’s the problem. We can never stop changing because nothing else stops changing. If the need to change is ever present, what’s the alternative to faux transformation?

Organisations need to become change ready. Able to change on a continual basis. Always improving. Continually evolving rather than sporadically transforming. Continual improvement requires serious work to embed in an organisation, but it can be done.

Part 2 explores how you can take your organisation on the journey to continuous improvement.