The Art of Transformation

Transformation is not Transition! It doesn’t much matter if you are considering Lean, Kanban, Agile, Scrum, Product Management, Product Development/Engineering, Six Sigma, etc. Transformation is about DNA! Transformationists are a rare breed indeed!

Up to 75% of transformations don’t deliver the promised return on investment. Why? As Peter M. Senge explicates: “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” Consider the difference between a mechanistic and organic approach, and consider the underlying principles.

Mechanistic Approach

Margaret J. Wheatley explains:

A few years ago, we asked a group of Motorola engineers and technicians to describe how they went about changing a machine. In neat sequential steps, here’s what they described:

  1. Assign a manager
  2. Set a goal that is bigger and better
  3. Define the direct outcomes
  4. Determine the measures
  5. Dissect the problem
  6. Redesign the machine
  7. Implement the adaptation
  8. Test the results
  9. Assign blame

Sound familiar? Doesn’t this describe most of the organizational change projects you’ve been involved in? We see only one real difference, which is that in organizations we skip step 8. We seldom test the results of our change efforts. We catch a glimmer of the results that are emerging (the unintended consequences,) and quickly realize that they’re not what we had planned for or what we sold to senior leadership. Instead of delving into what the results are, instead of learning from this experience, we do everything we can to get attention off the entire project. We spin off into a new project, announce yet another initiative, reassign managers and teams. Avoiding being the target of blame becomes the central activity rather than learning from what just happened. No wonder we keep failing!

Organic Approach

Margaret J. Wheatley explains:

Life changes its forms of organization using an entirely different process. Since human organizations are filled with living beings (we hope you agree with that statement,) we believe that life’s change process is also an accurate description of how change is occurring in organizations right now. This process can’t be described in neat increments. It occurs in the tangled webs of relationships–the networks–that characterize all living systems. There are no simple stages or easy-to-draw causal loops. Most communication and change occur quickly but invisibly, concealed by the density of interrelationships. If organizations behave like living systems, this description of how a living system changes should feel familiar to you.

Some part of the system (the system can be anything–an organization, a community, a business unit) notices something. It might be in a memo, a chance comment, a news report. It chooses to be disturbed by this. “Chooses” is the operative word here–the freedom to be disturbed belongs to the system. No one ever tells a living system what should disturb it (even though we try all the time.) If it chooses to be disturbed, it takes in the information and circulates it rapidly through its networks. As the disturbance circulates, others take it and amplify it. The information grows, changes, becomes distorted from the original, but all the time it is accumulating more and more meaning. The information may swell to such importance that the system can’t deal with it in its present state. Then and only then will the system begin to change. It is forced, by the sheer meaningfulness of the information, to let go of its present beliefs, structures, patterns, values. It cannot use its past to make sense of this new information. The system must truly let go, plunging itself into a state of confusion and uncertainty that feels like chaos, a state that always feels terrible. But having fallen apart, having let go of who it has been, the system now is capable of reorganizing itself to a new mode of being. It is, finally, open to change. It begins to reorganize around new interpretations, new meaning. It re-creates itself around new understandings of what’s real and what’s important. It becomes different because it understands the world differently. It becomes new because it was forced to let go of the old. And like all living systems, paradoxically it has changed because it was the only way it saw to preserve itself.

Principles for Practice

Margaret J. Wheatley offers four “principles for practice” around the essential freedom to re-create one’s self:

  • Participation is not a choice. Transformationists must invite people into the process. Its all about You (Management, Teams, and Individuals on the Business and Technology sides of the house)!
  • Life always reacts to directives, it never obeys them. Transformationists must consider how people react as partners not merely comply to bosses. Its all about You (Management, Teams, and Individuals on the Business and Technology sides of the house)!
  • We do not see “reality.” We each create our own interpretation of what’s real. Transformationists must always remain curious about the diversity of interpretation not merely convincing others of our interpretation. Appreciate, Appreciate, and Appreciate!
  • To create better health in a living system, connect it to more of itself. Transformationists must have a profound respect for the system/organization. No one knows your house the way you do, and one must always respect your house!

Keep in mind, these are principles, not techniques or methods. Transformationists are a rare breed indeed!


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