How to Think and Talk about Organizational Transformation

Transformation is such a big buzzword these days that it can seem a bit basic to ask what it actually *means*.

“Of course I know what transformation means. Transformation means… change.” But what’s changing? “You know… the form… transformation… Why are you asking me these questions?”

Sorry. It’s kind of my thing.

Let me offer a definition: Transformation is a shift in underlying FUNCTION that leads to a change in FORM. The shift in *function* is the real transformation.

For example, I just updated the iOS on my iPhone. Now, the Safari address bar is at the bottom of the screen, not the top. That’s a major change in FORM but Safari still works the same way. It’s not a shift in FUNCTION.

Most of what we call organizational transformation is actually a change in FORM *without* the underlying shift in function. A bank rebrands so its logo is more in step with current trends, but it’s still the same old bank. A customer success team implements a new call tracking technology, but it still defines success in the same way.

These are changes in FORM.

FUNCTIONAL shifts are more profound. For example, imagine a sales team that wanted to fundamentally shift its approach to its customers. Rather than contacting customers once per year to sell a renewal, the team decides that they want to develop a trusted, consultative relationship so that customers reach out every time they need help. From numbers-focused to trust-focused: that’s a massive FUNCTIONAL shift. The shift in FUNCTION would lead to change in FORM—new selling systems, new business development tools, new narratives, etc. These forms would be transformative because of the underlying shift in FUNCTION.

As leaders, whenever we are considering how to communicate an organizational change, we need to ask ourselves: is this a change in FORM or a shift in FUNCTION?

A change in FORM requires educational trainings. FORM changes can be explained.

A shift in FUNCTION, however, requires a greater level of contemplation. Leaders need to step back and consider: what’s possible now that wasn’t before? What’s unnecessary now that was previously required? Etc.

FUNCTIONAL shifts can’t be top-down, because the nature of these shifts will require a change in leadership structures. In these cases, collaborative, cross-functional conversations, design sessions, think tanks, etc. are essential.

Right now, the whole world is going through a FUNCTIONAL shift. The FUNCTION of the office, of the supply chain, of organizational culture, of health, of travel, etc. are all fundamentally different than in 2019.

It’s simpler to talk about a change in FORM. It’s much more effective and visionary to work with the shift in FUNCTION.

To summarize: Transformation is a shift in underlying FUNCTION that leads to a change in FORM. The shift in *function* is the real transformation.