Defining “Transformation”

January 7, 2009


As I said in my post yesterday, BusinessWeek innovation guru Bruce Nussbaum said in his blog, Nussbaum on Design, that innovation is dead and “‘Transformation’ (is) the Key Concept of 2009.”

“‘Innovation’ implies changing what is,” he said on Jan. 3. “‘Transformation’ implies creating what’s new.”

But what, exactly, is “transformation”?

According to Nussbaum, transformation,

  • “Captures the key changes already underway and can help guide us into the future.”
  • “Implies that our lives will increasingly be organized around digital platforms and networks that will replace edifices and big organizations.”
  • “Implies radical transformation of our systems – education, health-care, economic growth, transportation, defense, political representation. It puts the focus on people, designing networks and systems off their wants and needs. It relies on humanizing technology, not imposing technology on humans.”

Yesterday I argued that innovation is very much alive and effective, if used responsibly with discipline and courage. That said, I do find Nussbaum’s concept of “transformation” interesting.

One reason Nussbaum gave in support of transformation rather than innovation  is that “our institutions aren’t working. They are broken. Corporations, investment banks, health care, schools, universities, Congress, transportation. The current crisis is accelerating the breakdown in the major institutions of our lives that began in the 90s.”

I completely agree.

Our institutions need change. Nussbaum said they need “a huge amount of totally ‘new.'” He said transformation is the way to get “totally new.” But, in my opinion, transformation is actually just one extreme end of the innovation spectrum.

At the other extreme end is incremental change or tweaking the status quo. The two poles balance each other. Several of our major industry meltdowns were caused by their leaderships’ contentedness with the status quo. But, because of the meltdowns, leaders now need to reach for the other extreme, transformation, to realign their organizations for success. Generally, when people “feel good,” they want more of the same. People are unwilling to change unless staying the same is scarier than the prospect of transforming. Today, many companies are at the point of pain where not changing would destroy them.

Nussbaum said design is key to transformation. “I use the term ‘transformation,'” he said, ” to capture the immensity of the task ahead of us and to guide us in the magnitude of that task, but the actual tools, methodologies, and, yes, philosophy of that mission is found within the space of design and design thinking.”

Having spent 25 years in design before starting FH Innovation, I understand the relationship between design and innovation and transformation. My design background helped me value the bridge thinking that is necessary to innovation. Designers are great at translating one silo of knowledge into something others can understand. The IDEO fellows, for instance, are famous for their ability to blend ergonomic functional needs with multiple disciplines.

But, designers are not often specialists in coordinating collaboration, maximizing intellectual capital, or helping map implementation.

Nussbaum refers to a number of design schools that are teaching the tools of transformation. The Illinois Institute of Technology, Institute of Design, specifically, offers a joint Master of Design/MBA program that teaches students “mastery in both user-centered, methods-based design innovation AND core management principles of marketing, project accounting, organizational behavior and strategy.”

I think this is brilliant. The business world needs more people who are competent in both creativity and business skills. It inspires bridge thinking. People with these skills will be better able to leverage innovation to balance business stability and status quo with transformation.

As we face complex, new economic challenges, we need to be able to adopt new thinking and business practices to take our businesses to the transcendent level and survive the recession on top, while also maintaining stability so that our employees and other stakeholders don’t lose confidence in us during the recession and will continue to recognize our brand as it evolves or leaps forward.

If, as Nussbaum says, transformation is going to take us to the next level, fantastic. But it must make business better than it was before, and it won’t get anywhere without a reframed definition of value, application of discipline, and open-minded management who are willing to live in the sometimes messy world of creation and incubation before hard financial results are delivered.

Join my blog tomorrow for more about working in the uncontrolled business world leads to success in the future.


What do you think about “transformation”? Will it be better able to take business to the next level than innovation?