“Transformation” – everyone wants it, few do it. “We need to transform” says the business/political/church/school/organizational leader, and immediately, peoples’ ears perk up, their emotions race at the prospect of change or they sink into weary cynicism … “Again?”
The need for transformation occurs when there is severe discomfort with the status quo. In our personal lives, we feel the need to transform when there is some crisis, when “we just can’t take it no more.” In organizations, there might be an imbroglio such as the current one with United Airlines violently evicting a paying passenger from one of their flights. This has resulted in massive negative press and a fall in their share price of over a billion dollars! (we wait to see if there will be any transformation). In the USA elections last year, the electorate decided that they couldn’t take any more of the corrupt Washington insiders and so voted for “draining the swamp.” It may take just one event, in and of itself a small step, to tip the scales from status quo to a “We MUST transform NOW.”
However, over time we note that very little transformation happens. Things revert to the uncomfortable comfort of the status quo, with those who clamoured the most for transformation creeping back into the burrows of their daily lives. How can this be when at the time of crisis, there was no doubt that something needed to change radically and the moment was now?
The word “transformation” is derived from two Latin words: “trans” – across and “formare” – to form. So, the word literally means to change form. We can therefore expect that when we speak of transformation there will be a significant change. However, not all change is transformation. Improvements which make a system work better or faster, are not transformation. Transformation means that the very essence of the thing changes. Personal transformation for example, usually means that someone has taken a deliberate decision to make a profound change in their lives which results in them becoming a new person. Transformation of an organization means that the structure, systems, procedures and people, even the very mandate of the organization, will change form radically. Transformation is about creating a new being.
Over many years of my personal transformation, and of helping my coaching and corporate clients to transform their organizations, I have discovered 6 myths about transformation that we need to acknowledge and dispel if we are to stand any chance of success:
- Myth: It must be comfortable and orderly.
Reality: the truth is that transformation is very uncomfortable. Think of the caterpillar morphing into a butterfly – there is nothing comfortable about being in the cocoon; it doesn’t know what it is changing into, it’s dark, it’s warm and there is no form – just a powdery mucus-type of stuff. And that’s what transformation is like. Our tendency, if we subscribe to the myth, is to focus on making things comfortable, which usually means reverting to the status quo. What’s needed is to accept that discomfort is normal and to ride through it.
- Myth: People need to be ready for transformation.
Reality: It is very rare that the majority of people involved in a system are ready for transformation. The only readiness that is required is the vision, sense of urgency and willingness to act of the leadership
- Myth: Those who created the status quo can lead the transformation.
Reality: I am reminded here of Newton’s First Law of Motion which states: A body remains at rest or in motion with a constant velocity unless an external force acts on the body. An entity will continue going in the same direction unless an external agent acts on it. For organizations, the leadership can be that external force. Either the leaders need to change, or the leader needs to change themselves.
- Myth: Transformation is long term, with few visible results in the short term. For many, this means don’t start at all.
Reality: In fact, once transformation starts, there is a momentum that builds so that within short order, the transformation accelerates with increasing velocity.
- Myth: Transformation requires much additional effort.
Reality: Again, if we look at physics, we are reminded of the laws surrounding energy which states that energy cannot be created or destroyed; it only changes form. There is already significant energy invested in maintaining the status quo. Transformation simply requires a shift of that energy.
- Myth: You must know exactly what you are doing before you start.
Reality: there are no right answers in the future. Whether you are right or wrong emerges in time. One thing is certain – in the face of significant discomfort with a system, doing nothing is definitely wrong!
Having dispelled these myths, we can see that what’s really required for transformation is leadership that is visionary, committed and willing to take risks; leadership that honestly identifies the case for change with no denials; leadership that is willing to do what’s right rather than what’s popular.
So, my question to you: Are you ready and willing to be such a leader?
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