Transformation is not just a buzzword anymore

     I’m often asked—told, really: “Transformation’s just a buzzword.” (You have to imagine the rising intonation and modifier before “buzzword” yourself.) Typically, it’s right after I disclose what I do to a middle ranking corporate or government manager. I have no choice but to say, “It certainly can be.”

Digital transformation got us started…

     No doubt the “transformation” train has been gaining steam over the past decade, mostly as digital transformation. So corporate FOMO is at a fever pitch. Add to that, forces from every direction—not just digital. For instance:

  • decarbonization runs from electrification of transportation to revitalization of energy grids to renewable energy;
  • environmental transformation rubs against decarbonization but uniquely includes resiliency planning, impacts to (public) health, travel, where we live, and so on;
  • pandemic work-from-home’s legacy is to accelerate evolution of how work gets done;
  • never mind the deferred corporate and government operational investments that are obviously past due.

     Just running through impacts on the five environmental considerations (STEEP) I was taught in business school—part of any good business plan—would fill a page or two.[1]

Transformation is everywhere all the time

     All of which is to say every organization could and probably should have at least one transformation going on. That’s a decent indicator “transformation” is not merely a buzzword.

     Oddly, not every organization is transforming something. Admittedly these are relatively few and will be part of an ever-shrinking portion for years to come. They will transform in some material way soon… or they will be eliminated. Either way, Schumpeter’s point is well made.[2]

Joseph Schumpeter was all about transformation even if he never said the word. "Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism."

     Sometimes those organizations actually transforming in some meaningful way don’t even consider it, and certainly don’t publicize the fact. Huh? How can this happen? Isn’t it a rule that an organization’s journey of transformation must be loudly and widely proclaimed—as a testament to their own insight and courage if nothing else?

     It would seem so, provided of course that the organization has (a) publicly listed stock, (b) an employee CEO—or Elon Musk, (c) a contract with a major “transformation” consulting firm, and (d) is making this declaration mostly for those who can affect its share price. Not all organizations qualify on this basis though. So they’re quieter about transforming.

     Being modestly less glib, some organizations have never reached a comfortable equilibrium or stasis. They have been evolving through persistent change. Sometime the changes are innocuous and narrowly focused (say, shifting cost/operating structure toward full variability or doing the same with capital equipment—e.g., J-I-T or moving to the Cloud). Other times they are much more obviously transform something. These tend to happen with significant dislocations to labour or location. Moving the real—as opposed to nominal—headquarters would be an example; as would any extensive automation effort.

     Back to the question. Is transformation a buzzword? And why did I say it can be?

All transformation; no change

     I’m assured Texans are prone to judging a poseur as “All hat no cattle.” Imagine “transformation” as a ranch operation. Sometimes a big cowboy hat means you have a big ranch with a big herd. Sometimes the hat is cover for having neither. That’s a ten-gallon buzzword.

     A business or government organization that does the hard work (transformations ARE hard work, make no mistake). One that identifies—in some narrow or broad respect—its present and its future on its current arc and determines where it would rather be. One that establishes the means to get on a new trajectory and takes continuing tangible steps to achieve its desired future—even though it is becoming progressively unrecognizable to itself—is justifiably transforming. It may choose to say so or not. If it does, it can point to the herd.

     Another business or government organization that creates and continuously repeats a slideware mantra describing what its transformation needs to be and why, includes some objectives and high-level strategies, invests in flavour-of-the-day change (think: CRM this year, ERP last year, KAIZEN next year, digitization that’s really just making PDF versions of paper documents…), and makes no progress altering its core essence is not really transforming. This organization probably says it is to anyone listening for what’s coming out from under that giant Stetson.

     No doubt, “transformation” has been an incantation (i.e., buzzword) to make stock prices rise. This is why so many employee CEOs and senior executives have been loud and proud of transformational aspirations. The practical aspect may have been secondary; just enough “transformative change” to maintain the illusion and keep the market gods happy.

     It’s arguable that time has passed. Whether by virtue of the maturity and evolution of what digital transformation entails or because of market demands, like ESG, it’s much harder to put on the Transformation hat and pretend without getting called out on it. Today, it’s much less likely—not impossible, mind you—but much less likely to find it being used as a buzzword among the more evolved and sophisticated or at least conscientious in business and government.

     As always though, when you first hear the word it’s important to look past the speaker’s hat to see if the bullshit is on the ground where it’s supposed to be, or floating around dangerously close.

[1]  STEEP is the acronym I was taught for Societal, Technological, Economic, Environmental, and Political.

[2]   Joseph Schumpeter coined the phrase and notion of “creative destruction.”


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