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Change or Transformation When to Use Which

Change and transformation are distinct concepts. Change involves improving existing processes within the current framework, like going faster in the same gear. Transformation, on the other hand, means altering the entire paradigm or changing the rules of the game itself. For example, transforming a help desk from handling calls to eliminating calls entirely by addressing issues upstream is a second-order change. Use change principles when improvements are needed within the current system, and apply transformation principles when you aim to redefine or change the system itself.


Change or transformation. Which one to use when. I’m sure you’ve heard people talking about change. You’ve heard people talking about transformation. Boy, what’s the difference between the two? Let me give you just a few minutes to see if I can help clarify that. First-order change is like a simple change, which is like going faster in the same gear. So you’re changing what’s happening within the existing rules, the existing paradigms within the existing frame of reference. So nothing else changes, but maybe one variable inside of that particular system. So you push on the gas, and you go faster in a gear. Second-order change or transformation is getting in a completely different vehicle or setting a new destination. It’s changing the game itself, not just what’s happening inside of the game. Here’s an example from my own consulting experience of how difficult transformational thinking is. I was involved with a medical electronic organization that was one of the pioneers in figuring out how to put your medical data on a credit card. So when you paid for your medical services, all of your electronic data, your X-rays, and so forth were included in that. Brilliant. The problem they were having was that the helpdesk was swamped. So I’m doing this change project. And one of the issues that came up was the helpdesk.

And I was assigned to that particular issue because it was so of my team, I took that one. It was a really, really big one. So I’m meeting with a small team of people, and I invite the CEO to come into the meeting. We had a speakerphone. I called the helpdesk, which was going on down in a room below. There were 3 or 4 women on the phones constantly hassled. You know, the turnover was amazing. So I called the helpdesk on that phone, and this frantic voice said, “Yes, so and so, may I please can I put you on hold?” And I said, “Sure.” So I started my stopwatch. Tick tick tick tick tick tick. We’re talking to the CEO. 15 minutes later, the woman comes back on the phone and says, “Thank you for holding us. That’s okay. We solved the problem,” and I hung up. Well, the CEO just went nuts. Of course, that’s why I did it. I wanted him to see this, and I wanted him to tell this group. I wanted them to be motivated. He said, “Do whatever it takes, solve this problem.” So he leaves. So then I turned to the group and I said, “Okay, what would be the ideal number of calls coming in to your helpdesk?” And so they start bringing out calculators.

“Okay. We have four women, eight-hour shifts. We could go to three shifts.” And I said, “No, no, no, no, hang on, hang on. Maybe you didn’t understand the question. What would be the ideal number of calls coming in to the helpdesk?” Okay, we got four, and they just kept staying inside of the givens. We have four women working downstairs. We could add two people, and if we added two people, we could take more calls. And I said, “Hold it. You guys are not hearing me now. Of course, you’re watching this. And you’re thinking, how stupid can they be? Because you see right away what the right answer is. But they couldn’t see it because they were trapped inside of the way of thinking that were the rules of their game. Actually, what would be the ideal number coming into the helpdesk? Any number above zero is a first-order change. Well, finally, somebody said in the group said, “Well, well, I guess zero would be the ideal number.” And I said, and they said, “But we can never achieve that.” And I said, “Why?” And they said, “Oh, well, for that to happen.” And I said, “Okay, write all this down.” So they got on the flip chart. Well, first of all, the sales department would have to do a much better job of selling this thing and not.

And secondly, the people that install the equipment and third, the people that do the training. So they made a list of about a dozen things that had to happen. Because you see, the calls coming into the helpdesk were what I call at the brown end of the pipe. In the environmental movement. You have stuff going into the river. If you put a filter at that end of the pipe, that’s the brown end of the pipe. The cause is somewhere upstream, so zero is second-order change. If they had said, “Let’s go for zero now,” in order to get to zero, they have to step back and think about this situation in a completely, completely different way. So use change principles where the change is simple, where you just want to improve things inside the existing game. All right. You’re not going to mess with the game itself. Use transformation principles and transformational processes when you need to alter the paradigm or change the game itself. So there you go. There’s change and there’s transformation. Change is simple inside the existing rules of the game. Transformation is changing the rules of the game or getting into an entirely new game. Completely different way of thinking.


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