Transformation is a big deal in business leadership. Since the Second World War and the Japanese economic resurgence that followed, we’ve seen a steady growth in the tools and techniques of transformation. We’ve analyzed how to transform a business, types of transformation, how to overcome the challenges, even the details of how to make specific transformations.
Is it time to move the conversation on?
The Grand Upheaval
The Second World War led to two great strands of change in business processes, both rooted in manufacturing.
In the United States, analysts such as Robert McNamara brought data-driven analysis to the arms industry to fight the war more efficiently. The necessities of global conflict made it easier to push through change. In the post-war era, their insights led to an interest in change management that eventually gave birth to Six Sigma in the 1980s.
Meanwhile, in reconstruction Japan, engineers were building on the work of Sakichi Toyoda, Kiichiro Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno to create the Toyota Production System. This approach, and the lean management techniques that followed, focused on process analysis and the removal of waste.
The upheaval of war created radical new approaches. To break through the barriers of habit and complacency, they were executed through transformational projects of great drama and energy. A whole industry of transformation consultants emerged.
But is this still what we need?
Evolving a Business
Doubtless, some businesses still benefit from the swift kick in the pants that is a transformational project. But as history has shown time and again, gradual changes last longer and create less chaos than sudden ones. The French Revolution created instability and chaos, with results that were similar to those in the slowly changing nations around it.
Transformation implies a sudden, dramatic change. For an organization already willing to change its practices, that short, sharp kick isn’t needed – it’s pain for pain’s sake. Gradual change, evolving the business purposefully over time, will lead to results that last. And in the 21st century, most businesses have already recognized the necessity of change.
For an organization already willing to change its practices, that short, sharp kick isn’t needed – it’s pain for pain’s sake.
An evolutionary rather than transformative approach brings a number of benefits.
The lasting effectiveness of any change can only be measured over time. Most change methodologies acknowledge the importance of measuring as a way to prove whether a change has worked. But the short, sharp shock of a transformation project doesn’t often provide time to take those measurements and act upon them.
By incorporating steady, regular change into your business practices you can incorporate on-going measures into those changes, seeing whether they last in the real world rather than the artificial environment of a project.
Measurement of that work feeds into the second advantage –adaptability.
A large project can be unresponsive. You have a complex web of dependencies and contingencies. If a part of the project isn’t working, then changing it can throw everything else out of line. There may not be time to re-evaluate and re-plan.
By making change steadily over time, you give yourself more adaptability.
The culture of transformation is based on the assumption that there is a status quo people need shaking out of. There will be periods of stability and periods of change.
Shifting between the two is painful and disruptive. People suddenly have their ways of working challenged when they’re used to plodding along. There’s anger, resentment and resistance.
The culture of transformation is based on the assumption that there is a status quo people need shaking out of
Building steady, evolutionary change into everyday work avoids this. You keep up a steady pace of change, and in doing so make change something people are used to. You can escape the stop-start nature of transformation projects and the resistance they face.
Change, the fundamental aim of transformation projects, is good and necessary. But maybe it’s time to change in a different way. Maybe it’s time for evolution instead of revolution.