What is Transformation?
Transformation is a poorly defined concept. You see many things described as transformations, from major changes in the way an organisation operates to minor tweaks to processes. Some of that is marketing, both internal and external – a transformation sounds much more exciting than an incremental change. Some of the confusion is also because organisations are large and complex and what feels like a transformative change to one part of the organisation may have little or no impact on other parts.
Transformation programs are extremely challenging. They tend to either fail to achieve any change and disappear under a wave of organisational resistance or achieve only partial success before running out of steam. It is not uncommon to see organisations running multiple waves of transformation where each wave achieves partial success, stalls, then a year or so later the organisation tries again.
The Zone of Proximal Change
Educators have found that there is a limit to people’s ability to absorb new skills and concepts, even with support. If you attempt to teach beyond that limit, no matter how hard you teach and how much support you give, the student simply cannot learn whatever it is they are trying to learn. It’s a cognitive step too far.
Educators identify three learning zones – the things students can already do without help, the things they can’t learn, even with support and in the middle is the set of things they can learn with support. They call that middle zone, the zone where learning is possible, the Zone of Proximal Development.
Locating the Zones – Measuring an Organisation’s State
Organisations are complex things. They are collections of systems, processes, policies, and people that interact in complex ways. Most assessment tools focus on a narrow slice of an organisation – its tooling, its culture, and its ways of working. This provides a useful view, or rather a useful set of views into the organisation’s state, a series of glimpses through narrow windows, but it isn’t enough to properly assess the organisation. Too much falls through the gaps.
Rather than a set of narrow views, what is needed is a holistic assessment tool that allows the whole organisation to be assessed.
Elabor8’s 9 Pillars of Organisational Agility provides a useful mechanism for performing this holistic assessment.
- Strategy Execution
- Product Management
- Tooling & Technology
- System of Work
- Performance Data Science
Organisational Growth Model
Using these lenses, we define an Organisational Growth model consisting of 5 levels.
- Level 1 – Misaligned
- Level 2 – Aligned around Output (Doer)
- Level 3 – Aligned around Product/Service (Provider)
- Level 4 – Aligned around Strategy (Strategic)
- Level 5 – Aligned around Purpose (Purposeful)
Leading edges, trailing edges and centres of gravity
An organisation is a complex thing and can’t be summed up in one number. Instead, the maturity model shows three things:
- the organisation’s centre of gravity
- the organisation’s trailing edges
- the organisation’s leading edge
Setting realistic transformation goals
While it is important to have an ambitious vision for the future state of the organisation, it is also important to have a realistic goal. An organisation with a centre of gravity around level 1 may have a vision of reaching level 5, but to set up a change program to reach level 5 in one jump would be a mistake. A goal that is too aspirational will see the program fail. That change is outside the organisation’s zone of proximal change.
What makes a change transformational?
Returning to our earlier definition of a transformation as “a long lasting change that fundamentally changes the way the organisation operates internally and delivers products and services to its customers”. Remembering the difficulty on defining a “fundamental change”, we can apply the maturity model to refine that definition to:
A long lasting, sustainable change that moves an organisation to another maturity level across one or more lenses.
So a transformational change moves an organisation vertically between levels. A change that deepens practices within the current level but does not shift between levels, while it may be valuable, is not a transformational change.
When setting goals for a change program, it is important to know whether the change is transformational (vertical) or incremental (horizontal). A horizontal change requires much less effort than a vertical one.
If the change is a vertical one, the organisation must be careful to set realistic goals around how far and fast they will move and the level of support the transformation will need.
Transformation is, as the saying goes, a journey, not a destination. The destination, your ambitious end goal is a long way off, shrouded by distance, barely visible. You may never reach it. Or, as often happens, as you progress, new, more important goals are revealed to you and the direction of your journey fundamentally shifts. But there is enormous value in undertaking the journey. Every step you take towards your goal will bring rewards.