Transformation: why you should start phasing out that word

“The problem with transformational change is that it implies ordinary change has no change in it whatsoever”. So quipped the comedienne Sandy Toksvig on this subject.

If comedians are using one of your key business terms for their material, isn’t it time to reflect?

The problem is that the word transformation is now so deeply ingrained in the grammar of business language that’s it’s scarcely conceivable to imagine its absence.

If you type the word transformation into the search box of LinkedIn the result is shocking. The word is attached to everything from job titles to programmes. It’s ubiquitous.

But why shouldn’t it be? Why shouldn’t job titles include that word? What’s wrong with a bit of tautology if it encourages improvement? Does the use of language really matter?

It’s easy for comedians to joke and business writers to pontificate but it’s people like you who have to “deliver, execute, and step up”. And if you don’t, you’re in trouble. So for you, on a daily basis, this is no joking matter.

That’s why I invite you merely to consider phasing out the word, not dump it. Because it won’t be easy.

But you should consider doing so because it will make your life so much easier in the longer term and it will improve your business faster. I say this for three reasons:

First, there’s the slightly embarrassing reason  that the use of the word is, literally, ridiculous. And why would you want to be associated with anything even remotely ridiculous?

I mean how many transformations have you actually witnessed, heard about or “delivered”?  Few, I suspect, because transformation means changing one thing into another. It’s about alteration or conversion. These are lesser spotted.

I recall a brand of  toy our kids played with called Transformers. These looked like innocent toy cars but then, with a twist here and a yank there, they could be transformed into scary monsters. They were what it said on the box: transformers.

But few transformation programmes are sufficiently well funded, supported or thought through to be worthy of the name.

What they really mean is change. And change,  I’m afraid, is part of BAU. Calling it transformation helps no one.

Ryanair is an example of transformation. Michael O’Leary and his team contributed to the transformation of the airline market. Time was that flying was for a certain class of person and cost a small fortune.

Mr O’Leary, and other similar airlines, decided that this could be transformed and they did. But Mr O’Leary was called a CEO, not a transformation director.

Some  IT transformation programmes are genuine transformation programmes but most are change management programmes where the greatest roadblock is the behaviour of users. Believe me, behavioural transformation is as rare as hens’ teeth.

Between 1995 and 2000 I worked at ITN the UK news provider. I witnessed and was a minor player in the conversion of the newsroom from analogue to digital. That was a transformation programme.

While at ITN my job was to manage and exploit its moving picture assets which were significantly large and grew daily.

It took me five years to lead change in the behaviour of how moving pictures were used on the news bulletins and how their secondary rights were exploited. While I feel proud that I facilitated significant business and behavioural change, I transformed nothing.

So why use a word that will set you and the people you lead up to fail? The reason is that most people in business are terrified of behaving normally and feel that they must use abnormal and grandiose language.

And it’s certainly not normal to say you will transform something when you know you can’t.

You wouldn’t say at home that you have transformed the family culture by persuading everyone to sit around the table for dinner and chat instead of watching the telly. You might feel like you had done so but you know that if you do, you’re  just doing your job.

The second reason is that the word undermines trust in any change process. And without trust there is no change. If people don’t believe that change is possible and desirable they won’t buy-in. So why undermine your own change process?

The third reason is that it reminds me of Original Sin. If you are a Catholic or come from that culture you will know what I mean. If you don’t suffice it to say that the word transformation carries with it an implicit dollop of shame about how things are now.

If we need to transform then we must not just be bad, we must be terribly bad. And some business leaders are pass masters at creating feelings of shame.

The problem is that many so called transformation programmes fail because of implied shame because people don’t like to be shamed and are not motivated by it.

And if you’re trying to change something but call it transformation you might fail because of shame. And that would be a shame.

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