Today we take time to reflect on transformation theory. Our featured thinkers – Marcia Daszko and Sheila Sheinberg – have synthesized many other thinkers’ ideas, including W. Edwards Deming and Peter Senge, into one concise overview.

First, consider some definitions and distinctions about types of change:

 “Transformation has become a popular, overused and misunderstood word in organizations in the twenty-first century. Hundreds of organizations hear the mandate for transformation. The mandate comes from Congress, the Pentagon, government agencies, the senior military, corporate executives or school Superintendents. Leaders and their organizations are compelled to respond to the mandate. They attempt to “talk the language” and take action in pursuit of transformation. Often the response, however, is a reaction, actions and mere incremental changes that are neither sustainable nor systematic. Unfortunately, few individuals understand transformation or why there is an imperative for transformation, not merely incremental or transitional change. Often, people confuse transformation with any  kind of change, technology breakthrough, innovation, process improvement or transition. However, few changes are truly transformational. […] While all transformation is change, not all change is transformation.” (1)

Compare transformation to traditional and transitional types of change:


Daszko and Sheinberg explain:

“Transformation is what happens when people see the world through a new lens of knowledge and are able to create an infrastructure, never before envisioned, to the future. Transformation is motivated by survival, by the realization that everything needs to change or the organization will die; that a significant breakthrough in mindset  is needed in order to pursue new opportunities. Another motivator is a leader’s urgency  and drive to envision and create the future. From either motivation, the entire mind-set and organization’s paradigms are forced to shift. The challenges to those who embark on and choose to lead a transformation journey are many; they lead in a direction where the “destination” is not known. The challenge to those who travel with such leaders will be to trust and support the vision and the system. There is a vision of transformation, but the specific systems and processes emerge and are created through continuous learning and taking new actions, actions never before taken.” (2)

They remind us:

 There is no such thing as a transformed organization. First, there is no transformed  (past tense) organization because transformation is ongoing. It would be a mistake to consider the acceptance of the initial awakening as the point of transformation; even though, without the awakening, transformation is not possible. The awakening is the provocation for the transformation. Secondly, there is no transformed organization  because the organization doesn’t exist apart from the people and other systemic parts it comprises. However, for the sake of conciseness, the terms “organization” or “transforming organization” will be used to refer to the individuals within.

The following components are essential to transformation:

  • Awakening: Individuals are challenged by a question or roadblock so profound and pervasive that s/he must consider adopting new mindsets and taking unprecedented risks. Without overcoming this roadblock or answering this question, the organization will not survive — individuals are awakened to this “crisis.”
  • Vision: Individuals develop a compelling picture of a drastically better, drastically different future. Or, conversely, individuals envision a terrifying, devastating future that will occur if the status quo remains.
  • Intention: Individuals commit deeply and thoughtfully to the process of transformation. Without this deep commitment, it is likely that traditional or transitional change, instead of transformational change, will occur.
  • Learning: Individuals pursue cycles of “plan, do, study, act” whereby they take knowledge from outside the organization and apply it to the organization’s internal workings, monitor its impact, and draw insights from the process. An external coach is helpful, and sometimes necessary, to effectively learn since an organization “cannot see itself” and is often blind to the most important insights.
  •  Method: Other forms of change may demand methods that revolve around protocols and systems. Because transformation happens first on the personal level – we are transforming ourselves – transformation “requires thinking through and about feelings, data, process, creativity, caution and optimism” (10). These human elements must remain to focus to be successful.
  • Integration: Although transformation may begin with a single individual or small group, to be successful it must be integrated throughout the entire organization. All stakeholders must be awakened, share the vision, intend to transform, commit to constant learning, and be willing to focus on the methods required to transform as a person.

Consider these reflection questions:

  • When have you experienced an “awakening” in your work? What precipitated your awakening? What did it feel like? How can we catalyze the awakening of others?
  • If not all change is transformational, how do we recognize the type of change we need and the type of change we’re engaged in? What problems may arise if we approach a crisis with traditional or transitional change rather than transformational change?
  • What does it look like to lead others through transformation given that there is no “end state” and the path toward the vision is unpredictable? 
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