Unpacking Transformation

Saturday, August 11, 2018
Given this website is about transforming, what exactly is transformation, where does it apply in life, and what’s the best way to achieve it?

While the word ‘transformation’ is used in connection with many concepts, in particular concepts that relate to organisations and leaders, it certainly isn’t limited to these uses. However, let’s start with these to see how they fit the definition of transformation.

To transform according to the Australian Macquarie dictionary, is ‘to change in appearance, condition, nature or character, especially completely or extensively.’

Transformational Change

Any transformation process assumes a radical shift in something. In transformational change, it is a shift in the way that an organisation has operated up to a certain point, with a view to completely and fundamentally overhaul its operations, culture, behaviour of its people and their mindsets. The change management strategy lays out the path for the transformation, but the organisation is not transformed until these changes have been implemented and sustained over time.

Transformational Leadership

To lead transformational change, a transformation leader is often highly sought after. Transformational leadership is less about the leader’s personal style and more about what the leader accomplishes, according to Dubrin and Dalglish in Leadership: An Australasian Focus (2003). Leaders in charge of transformations may be involved in raising people’s awareness, moving people beyond self-interest, helping people search for self-fulfillment and understand the need for change. Transformational leaders commit to greatness and they adopt a long-range, broad perspective as they guide the organisation towards the transformation itself (Dubrin & Dalglish, 2003).

Personal Transformation

But transformation as an idea doesn’t stop there. Many people seek personal transformation at some point in their lives. They realise that where they are now, is not where they want to be in the future. They recognise the need for significant change – sometimes radical change – and they make a conscious decision to work towards that change.

Or not. To desire transformation, and to actually put in the work to achieve transformation are two different things. Many people want to click their fingers and have it done, much like reading a self-help book and believing that they are now changed simply from perusing the information.

Understanding Means and End

Transformation is the end result of the process of changing. In project terminology it might be the outcome or even the ‘deliverable’. The ‘means’ to achieve the transformation is the work needed to achieve the change, and the ‘end’ is the transformation itself. Ideally you align means with end so they are consistent. In some life transformations, the end may never be reached or it may be reached and then transformed again.

Transformation itself isn’t a ‘thing’ to be gained like a prize, although marketing sells it this way using promises that with minimal effort you will ‘be transformed!’ Rarely is transformation this easy. In fact, if you see the end result of the transformation as the only reward you are seeking, the process to get there could be very long and tedious. Your brain is much more interested in working with you to achieve a key goal if the steps to get there are also rewarding.

The 'Brain-Blocks' to Transformation

For example, wanting to transform your health is a goal that feels very rewarding when you envision yourself attaining the state you desire. The means you will use to achieve it will be to change your diet and join the gym. Sound easy but as we all know, these simple life changes can be extraordinarily difficult.

One of the reasons any step toward transforming yourself is difficult, is that unless you genuinely enjoy the process of going for a walk or eating more vegetables, this new way of behaving creates more pain than pleasure for your brain. Brains are ‘prediction machines’, reliant on known, predicable patterns and pathways of habit to save valuable chemical resources for more complex thinking functions. Any change to the known routine means learning a new habit, and this requires a higher level of cognitive function.

What you feel in the changeover to new habits is the equivalent of your brain dragging its feet. With your new routine it can no longer predict with the same degree of certainty what will happen next. Will you run before or after lunch? Should you eat light before and then again after or skip food until later? What new food should you eat? Do you have it at home or need to purchase it first?

These and a thousand other questions slow down your brain as it tries to process all the potential options and variables and assess each for its fit with your existing mental patterns. This extra thinking is effortful; and you feel tired just considering finding a healthier recipe for dinner, much less actually going to the trouble of learning how to cook it. Much easier to say, ‘I’ll start tomorrow’. Many transformations never get past this initial ‘brain-block’.

Therefore, a key step when planning a transformation of any kind is to make the steps involved in achieving it as rewarding and pleasurable as possible. The brain releases dopamine when you feel excited and achieve a step in a goal. This chemical motivates you to continue what you are doing and is a key tool in your plan for success.

Maintaining a Transformation

Once your new healthy transformation occurs – you look amazing and feel great – can you now stop the means that got you there? Sadly no, maintaining that wonderous transformed body requires ongoing focus on the new thoughts and behaviours that got you there. If you stop exercising or go back to eating whatever you want, your previous state will return. Maintaining that new state is what transformation entails. Transformation is not an event; it is a changed way of life that needs regular maintenance.

If you have a transformation that you would like to see in your life, the reward for reaching it needs to be personal in some way, as big as you can make it, and attached to strong positive emotion. It has to feel like something you want with all your heart, because otherwise your brain will undermine the substantial effort required to achieve it.

In addition to finding a really powerful reason to transform, you also need to find reward in the changes that you know you will have to make.  If your transformation requires being creative in new ways but you hate creativity, then that’s going to be an ongoing problem which could derail the process. When the process to transform involves learning a new way of thinking or behaving that you find engaging, exciting and motivating, then the process itself will push you forward.