Who Transforms in Transformation?

Peter JonesTransformation Design, Wu Wei

In the BusinessWeek blog, Nussbaum on Design packs all the goodies gathered over the years from “innovation” and drops them into “transformation.” This pronouncement led to well over a dozen responses in the Transforming Transformation Google groups, some of them pages in length. Comparing these responses with the replies to the cheerleading or briefer critical bits replied to Nussbaum’s original post, I’d say the value of an in-depth selective social network becomes quite clear.

A position I take (though not a definitive one) is that innovation is something we do, a process we have some control over. Innovation can be managed as an organizational process. A person may be innovative in their practices and outlook, but innovation is a process of organizing and designing toward desired outcomes on a repeatable basis.

“Big T” Transformation is not something we do, as a repeatable transformation process. But it changes who we are. We, as social human beings, are changed in any transformative outcome. I’m finding very little agreement on definitions of transformation though, so some rambling may follow.

We should set the definition bar high enough to make a difference. When I say a person is transformed, I am not claiming they are innovative or creative. The transformed person shows up as a different person.

Anthropologist Morgan Gerard suggests we perform transformation, and that there is a displaying factor, a presentation of change. As persons, I believe this is so. We transform, we change, as we may innovate.  We may perform with others and receive feedback  on our difference from before transforming. How else would we “test” that we had in fact transformed? As individuals we can assess our distancing from having changed, and make small “transformations” or changes on a continual basis. But the transformation occurs within the person.

The Wicked Problem of Big Transformation

The discussions have persisted for weeks, and we may have to accept that a variety of irresolvable differences may continue in the various sectors and applications adopting the term transformation. I can live with that, it is a much better situation than attempting to reach meaningless agreement. My point about Big Transformation is that “we” don’t make it happen, as with innovation. The people living in the transformed system make it happen. Transformation happens in the world, not in our designing. Design thinking facilitates the process, but we might not ever own it, as we do in an innovation context.

Transformation can be considered on a continuum of scale of change. A matter of scale. A neighborhood is revitalized, a city is transformed (and a house is renovated). A department is shuffled, a division is reorganized, and an enterprise is transformed.

Scale means longer timeframes are involved. The duration of innovation can be measured in the span of a single project (Bill Buxton’s long nose of innovation notwithstanding). The duration of systemic or social transformation depends on the system and its entrenchment. We may want to transform the US healthcare system, but given that signifciant systemic change may take a generation, who has the patience to see the project through? And since such change is incremental (as Morgan also suggests), we may experience the gradual outcomes of a 20-year slog as anticlimactic.

When we “intend” transformation, do we have the years of intention it may take to recognize that it has occurred?

“Measures of success” seem somewhat futile – If you were personally transformed, would you need to measure the change? If your nation were transformed, would you need to see the numbers first?  Are small changes prefiguring transformation? The outcome will be shared by all, palpable, sensed, obvious.

Transformation occurs in the world as an outcome of projects we can control and events we cannot. After multiple interventions, designed and non-designed processes, coordinated and emergent, intentional and improvisational, a new world takes shape. In the end, the agreement and uptake of people living in the “system” make the difference. We only set the stage and hope the play takes over.

Why should we accept less than total transformation from systems and wicked problems that we confront in our society and organizations? If things need to change, then let’s change things. We may need to form a movement, but we need to change. Transformation is “done” when the constituents realize the old order is done, and the world itself has changed.

For my entire lifespan in the US, our society and its systems have been in need of transformation.  The easy decades of the 80’s and 90’s ran on borrowed time and money, and its payback time. The Club of Rome (Hasan Ozbekhan) published their first paper, The Predicament of Mankind, presenting 49 Continuous Critical Problems, in 1970. Followed in 1972, by the famous (Meadows) book Limits to Growth, the Club peaked and faded into memory. Yet they achieved the nearly impossible – they predicted the future as it would occur for our generation. The 49 interconnected Critical Continuous Complex Problems have gone global. That’s the transformation we need. Can I get a “Yes, we can”?

The future has taken a long time to arrive, but now that it’s here, it’s already past.