Is transformation a euphemism for change? Is it ‘change-on-steroids”? Have we decided that change is a dirty word and if we use the word transformation, it will catch people unawares?

Words have power – no doubt about that. The word “transformation” brings to mind these words:

“Reinvention is not changing what is but creating what isn’t. A butterfly is not more caterpillar or a better or improved caterpillar; a butterfly is a different creature.” 1

Systems theory 2 makes a significant contribution to any transformation discussion. The fact that a system tends towards equilibrium explains why organisations seem resistant to change.

Systems theory identifies features common to all systems. As living systems (as opposed to those atrophying and dying) are in a permanent state of flux, perhaps by ‘transformation’, we mean:

  • change-by-design, as opposed to the intrinsic ebb and flow of natural systems
  • change that is deliberate rather than reactive, accidental or evolutionary which may take too long and leave some ‘species’ extinct.

As living systems that are not changing are dying, emphasis in organizations (living systems) can turn to finding ways to stay adaptive, flexible and future-focused – all three are supported by digital advancement. When those three are the starting point, it is less likely that an organization will suffer perturbation (disturbance) during times of change.

Open and Closed Systems

Success and failure in transformation can be as simple as whether or not a system (organisation, business unit, team, individual) is open or closed. (In a physical sense, a limb that is closed off from fresh blood supply gets gangrenous, dies and must be amputated – does this sound like a department or individual in organizations you know?)

This list of features can be applied to any system including social, such as organisations.

In a Closed System:

  • interactions occur only among the elements in the system
  • boundaries are rigid, restricting inflow or outflow (exchange) of information or matter
  • organisation decreases (stagnation)
  • entropy (disintegration) is the eventual result

The opposite of entropy is evolution.

An Open System:

  • Continually receives input from its environment (host system)
  • Continually produces output to its environment (host system)
  • Evolves as a result of these exchanges – new information stimulates adaptation, renewal and reinvention
  • The whole is more than the sum of the parts (which is often how high performance teams are described)

These features provide useful checklists for organisations (or business units, teams or individuals) to know which path they are on and where to take action to improve adaptation for surviving (or better: thriving) through transformation.

Transformation-Ready Systems

It is clear from the above features that transformative, change-ready cultures are open, adept and flexible. Here’s how to spot this in organisations:

  • People ask questions and listen, widely and continuously
  • Departments ask for feedback from other departments that rely on their services, listening to the feedback to make themselves more useful to these groups
  • Individuals canvass feedback about their performance from those they work with
  • Roles and responsibilities are fluid with situational demands
  • There is frequent cross-referencing that specifications are still valid
  • People are honest with each other
  • There are no sacred cows
  • Everyone is driven by successful delivery – common, not conflicting, goals
  • People act to enhance the group’s overall reputation for responsiveness
  • There is intense collaboration across team boundaries

Use this list to identify how likely the organisation is to successfully host the transformation process or stifle it to death.

If an organisation uses this as a litmus test, and does the necessary work that this highlights, transformation programs are far more likely to be successful.

Where Does Transformation Start and End?

If successful transformation starts with a change-ready, open and adaptive state, and every organisation system compromises units, teams and individuals, it follows that transformation success starts with a requirement that each individual is open, adaptive and future-focused. Making the development of this mindset a key priority will move the organisation towards that change-ready state.

Recalibrating the Organisation to that of ‘Transformative’ as a Default State

Here’s what it takes for becoming transformative as an organisation, business unit, team and/or individual:

  • Realise that the human state is synonymous with change. (It is not transformation that people resist, it is change that seems arbitrary and forced upon the majority by the minority in a way that makes no sense.)
  • Educate and inform so that everyone understands the business context – one source of truth – for adding value continuously. Within this common context, decisions make sense.
  • Highlight challenges so everyone understands constraints and threats (reality check) so everyone participates in solution-seeking.  Note: See how one group of business leaders led their organisation through dramatic circumstances.3
  • Coach people in how to keep their contribution valuable and continuously evolving.  Note: See how Ralph Stayer, founder of Johnsonville Sausage, learned to let his workers lead.4
  • When you hit a speed bump, communicate constantly. Travel the journey as a team.
  • Insist on openness, responsiveness and continuous improvement as essential for organizational survival – a collective commitment.

The seeds of success with transformation are sown a long time before transformation begins.


1  “The Reinvention Roller Coaster: Risking the Present for a Powerful Future” by Tracy Goss, Richard T. Pascale and Anthony Athos.

2  Systems Theory is attributed to biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy. See David S.Walonick, Ph.D. General Systems Theory

3  ‘Of Boxes, Bubbles, and Effective Management’by David Hurst. HBR. May 1984.

4  “How I Learned to Let My Workers Lead” by Ralph Stayer. HBR. Nov-Dec 1990.

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