Changing the Transformation Syndrome

We live in a world of accelerated change. Fueled by the exponential digitalization of products, services, and communications, situations that took years or months to play out are now taking place in weeks or days, and even in hours and minutes. Our ability to process, understand and act is happening in short time periods as we move to almost real-time change.

Transformation vs. Change

Transformation means to “change in shape, metamorphose.” (1) Going from something familiar to something unfamiliar is a key aspect of transformation. It works at the fundamental level and shifts assumptions, processes, behaviors and outcomes in a rapid way, often in ways that we do not understand. Change on the other hand “undergo alteration, become different.” (2) Change is an alteration vs. transformation is a metamorphosis. There is some trial and error, but we can project much more of what we already know into change because it is not as disruptive as transformation.

Transformation is now being used for any discussion around change, which makes anything sound much more important and consequential, no matter how inconsequential the outcome is. Is every change so monumental that it fundamentally changes society, a group or one person? Probably not. In the .com era another popular term was used for just about everything – “paradigm shift.” This term has been attributed to Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” where he defined a paradigm shift as changes to basic assumptions within ruling theories in science. The use of this term quickly petered out after the .com crash.

Historical Transformations

Looking back at human history, there have been fundamental transformations. For example:

  • the fall of Rome and the start of the Dark Ages was a fundamental shift from Roman imperial order to unraveling western societies into chaos, religion and superstition. This lasted almost 700 years.
  • the Middle Ages introduced a limited number of technological and agricultural changes which lasted 500 years.
  • the Renaissance was another transformation which went from god-centric to human-centric models fueled by exploration, science and reason. This was transformational in that it accelerated discoveries and inventions which fundamentally reshaped society and lasted a much shorter 300 years.
  • lastly, the first industrial revolution introduced steam to power things which lasted 100 years, the second industrial revolution was the rise of mass production and formalization of science which lasted 100 years and the third industrial revolution was the rise of the internet and digital technology which we are still in but is about 50 years old. (3)

We are now in a fourth revolution called industry 4.0 or the rise of intelligent computing where objects are interconnected through internet protocols and networks. With increases in network speed and capacity comes ever more digital services that change our physical world into a hybrid experiences with digital overlays on physical objects or through internet of things (IoT) which allow us to interact with objects in our home or around the world. Companies and people are now in a digital deluge which is causing more rapid shits in behaviors to adapt to new products and services. This era is about a decade old and is still in active progress.

All of the above revolutions were transformational in that they metamorphosized society and reordered beliefs, behaviors and actions in fundamental ways. It is interesting that transformation and revolution are used interchangeably as both address overthrowing the status quo through great change. What is also interesting is the timespan from the Dark Ages which lasted 1000 years to the Industrial Revolution which lasted about 100 years. This is a 90% decrease in time, but with the same level of fundamental change.

Communications is a driver of change and transformation

Change and transformation can be directly linked to advances in communication. From analog print to wired to wireless and then to digital broadband has increased the volume, variety, velocity, and veracity of information that can be transmitted and shared. When humans were the main transmitters of information the physics and effects of information transfer was small, localized and there were long lag times. With the advent of writing and then printing, this allowed information in greater quantities to be shared and duplicated to many more people, with larger effects but still with lag times.

There is a relation between decreased costs of generating, transmitting and sharing of information and decreased lag times which can be directly linked to increased change, and in some cases leading to transformational moments which connected countries, continents and the world.With the invention of the telegraph and transatlantic cables, this decreased lag times but there were still constraints on the amount of information that could be transmitted.

The advent of wireless communication through radio created an exponential level of information with greatly reduced lag times. With digital networks and mobile technologies the amount of information and the ability to share and process is is almost instantaneous and the cost is almost nothing. Yet, the effects of communications now can cause fundamental disruptions with regional or global consequences.

World War II was as much an information as a military conflict that had global consequences. Institutions and governments still could not move as quickly as the information flow but there was greater awareness of information that led to changes in weeks or months.

The Cold War continued this trend where immediate access to information could lead to all types of changes and in some cases transformations. The Cuban Missile crisis over nine days riveted the world as almost a real time story that had global consequences which transformed military nuclear doctrines to mutually assured destruction through missile technology where in minutes information that was transmitted could then lead to millions being killed – in minutes.

Communications and new information is exploding. For example in 1900,  with its rate of information flow it would have taken 400 years to double the collected knowledge. In 1950 that dropped to 20 years. In 2000 it dropped to eight years. Today, it has dropped to 12 hours. (5)

Connecting the rate of change with the rate of information flow in this scenario, it becomes understandable that humans have less time to intake, sort, process, store and and retrieve data to information to knowledge. Essentially, our brains are becoming overloaded as we are being confronted with novel situations where we cannot use past experiences to predict unknown futures.

Not all changes are transformational, but all transformations generate many levels of change

Heraclitus the Greek philosopher stated “The Only Constant in Life Is Change.” His premise was that the world exists as a coherent system in which a change in one direction is ultimately balanced by a corresponding change in another. (4) This closely aligns with the concept of cause and effect, but in many cases factors are not equally balanced.

In natural evolution, environmental factors force species to adapt over long periods or to cease to exist. In man made situations, specific changes happen within one, or a few generations. Any change is measured by two factors : the level of change and the rate of that change over a specific timespan. Depending on context, a change can be sudden and jarring, or it can happen more slowly where there is time to analyze and respond to change through adaptation of behaviors, actions and allocation of resources. Most change is at a manageable scale and can be addressed by an individual or a group of people who can cooperate to pool knowledge, experience and resources to go from one state to another.

In transformation, the level and rate of change is at such a fundamental level that many assumptions, systems and dependencies dramatically shift in very short periods of time. The level of uncertainty increases with new unknowns that have little precedent. The pandemic is our current transformational inflection point that is fundamentally shifting societies, processes, and human interactions at a macroeconomic, political and economic scale. The level of complexity of these changes are hard to process and the many disruptions are hard to understand or project forward in time because there has not been enough time, or adequate ways to accurately measure the many changes and interdependencies that the current pandemic is still causing.

In change and transformation, there are degrees of trial and error that do happen to address unfamiliar situations which try to deflect, stall, or adapt to a change in a way that an individual or group wants to happen. In many types of change, interdependencies are smaller and more manageable to attain situational awareness. In transformation, the level of complexity due to many more interdependencies and unknowns dramatically increases causing low levels of situational awareness.


Adapting to a permanent change based landscape

Change is happening in shorter timeframes and we are being confronted with many novel situations that do not have precedent to really know how desired outcomes will turn out. The pressure to change and to transform is happening at a faster rate which is impacting our ability to reflect on our options and to understand the consequences of change.

Has change and transformation become the same thing? No. The closer the change is at a hyperlocal level using local systems and resources, change is not transformation. With the reliance on more macro systems and resources to run our life however, fundamental change can be thrust upon us causing transformational situations to confront, making knowable change much more unknowable.

The craft of thinking which connects observation, questioning, speculation and reflection using critical thinking skills is under stress. We are becoming more reactive with a just good enough approach that barely can keep up with the demands of change. This affects our notions of order and understandability in a world that is being driven by less and less of it. This is why we hear much more about transformation than change. Every change feels fundamental rather than as a natural progression over time.

To have a higher chance of addressing change requires a continuous improvement mindset through increasing skill competence and confidence over time. The goal is to become more adaptable and be in a change mindset, rather than seeking stability and being jarred by a required change. It is important to know the difference between change and transformation. While transformation changes things at a fundamental level and requires many levels of change, most changes are not transformational and require a much smaller set of resources and mindsets to go from one state to another.

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2 years ago