Project Management

The Difference Between Change and Transformation

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Categories: Change Management

By Lynda Bourne


Most organizations that take change management seriously have processes in place to train staff, reconfigure work practices and provide frontline support to ensure the project’s deliverables are effectively used to create value.

Many organizations are now also tracking the realization of benefits once the project is finished and its product has been transitioned to operations or the client—closing the loop back to the promised benefits in the business case.

However, there is an emerging body of evidence that while “business as usual” change—for example, to introduce an upgraded software system or market a new product—is fairly well understood, this type of change is very different from transformational change focused on reinventing the organization in some way.

There is confusion about what constitutes change versus transformation. We have a good idea of how to manage change, but most organizations continue to struggle with transformation.

Change management means implementing finite initiatives, which may or may not cut across the organization. The focus is on executing a well-defined shift in the way things work. By applying well-known change management principles and tools—including explaining the reason for the change, building a coalition of leaders, engaging stakeholders and executing with discipline—there is a good chance the change will go smoothly and the expected benefits realized.

Organizational transformation is altogether different.The objective of transformation is not just to execute a defined change, but to reinvent the organization, change culture and behaviors, and discover (rather than create) a new way of working based on a vision for the future.

For example, a transformational change could involve moving from a traditional sales model with sales representatives and brick-and-mortar stores to a 100 percent online sales and marketing presence.

Unlike change management, transformation management cannot simply focus on a few discrete, well-defined shifts. It must focus on a coordinated portfolio of interdependent initiatives.

Delivering the capabilities for this type of initiative is the realm of program management, because multiple projects will be needed to build the different elements required for the overall transition. Those multiple projects, requiring multiple change initiatives, together lead the organization on a journey of discovery toward its new future state. Even if successful change management leads to the successful implementation of certain initiatives within the transformation portfolio, the overall transformation could still fail.

This type of transformation is far more unpredictable, iterative and experimental than traditional project or program management, and consequently entails much higher risk. The key elements needed to build success are a clear vision of the final outcome, good stakeholder engagement and flexibility to adapt the program of work based on feedback from earlier initiatives.

The ultimate vision may not change, but the route to success will require continuous adaptation to overcome obstacles and exploit opportunities.

Posted by Lynda Bourne on: May 06, 2015 07:28 PM | Permalink

Comments (5)

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Wonderful observation! So, if I understand correctly, transformation is comprised of multiple interrelated change events that transpire over a horizon of time. However, transformation as a whole has an end state that seeks to reinvent the organization. Now, I understand that sometimes change happens not in the context of a larger transformation. However, when it does happen in this context, I think that line managers and project managers have a responsibility to communicate with employees so that they understand things in the larger context of transformation.

Totally agree Michael. Whilst a project manager is rarely responsible for implementing a change (that's an executive management responsibility) the project's interaction with stakeholders is usually one of the early communications and need to be designed to support the overall change initiative and the transrormation its supporting.

Thank you Lynda - we're in the midst of a transformation project - several programs including projects leveraging multiple technologies and communication networks, and overall a massive organizational shift. This post has been a great read to help me find a different perspective... it's great to step back and refocus on the goals.

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