Words are an important vehicle for communicating information and intent. Recently I was privy to a discussion over the use of ‘transformation’ and ‘adoption,’ when used to describe an organizational change. The conversation was focused on whether the word transformation in the phrase ‘Agile transformation’ demotivated team members. The answer is not cut and dry. Both words communicate a slightly different intent. In addition, when each word is used to describe current activities, each carries a different set of connotations. After listening to the discussion of the two concepts at Agile DC, I began reflecting on how I use the two terms, did further research and reached out to approximately 20 Agile practitioners (a range of developers, testers, scrum masters and consultants) in order to develop a more nuanced understanding of the two concepts, and when to use them safely. We begin with transformation.
The word ‘transform’ means to thoroughly change into something else. Transformation is an act, process or instance of change of something into something that did not exist before. The noun ‘transformation’ evokes a long-term change program that will result in a large-scale, strategic change impacting a whole organization (or at least a significant part). Steve Woodward of Cloud Solutions pointed out that a transformation requires directed cultural change. Culture change requires planning, effort and a vision of the future that Bharathi Vasanthakrishna of Kornerstone Consultants points out, does not currently exist. The vision of the future provides the organization with a goal to pursue and aspire to attain. For example, an organization that is beginning an Agile transformation is making a statement about how they perceive the future and, in a negative sense, what they perceive to be missing today. In many organizations, transformations are begun to escape a burning platform (a place or situation that the organization or group finds uncomfortable and wishes to escape); therefore once the transformation begins, there is no safe place to return. Transformations up-end the status quo causing disruptions and dislocations. The impact of transformations is often couched in code words like “an act of creative destruction.” These types of phrases are used to sugarcoat the potential impact of a transformation and to distance those leading the change from the pain it can cause. Any change that disrupts relationships or is perceived as being disruptive will cause some level of negative reaction. When done poorly in a heavy-handed, one-size-fits-all manner, the perception is often deserved.
If we define a transformation as a long-term change that disrupts an organization (which certainly conforms to how the practitioners I queried responded), it is easy to see why it might evoke angst. I checked the usage of the word transformation on Google’s NGran site. The usage of transformation has shown a steady decline since the late 1990’s, perhaps reflecting a problem in the perception of the word. Realistically, the concept of transforming an organization makes sense. One upon a time, Apple transformed itself from a midlevel computer manufacturer into the one of the most important electronic device manufacturers. GM transformed itself (with help) from a failing car manufacturer into a successful one. Just because the word connotes pain doesn’t mean it should not be used.
Next we will dissect the words ‘adopt’ and ‘adoption,’ which are often perceived as the darlings of Agile coaches.