In my book “Leaders, it’s not how you finish … it’s how you start” I coin a phrase: “Pseudo-transformation”. Pseudo-Transformation, as I term it, is the appearance of transformative change, but really little or no transformation occurs. This brings up the interesting concept of what do we mean by transformation and how would we know that transformation has actually taken place? Let’s start with the first question …

What do we mean by transformation?

I ask this question of all leaders who ask me to come in and assist with catalysing culture change in their organisation. The answer I receive most often is “We need to be very different to how we are right now!” I then invite the leaders to be more specific about what needs to be changed around here. I can summarise the answer I receive most often in just one word: THEM

It’s always interested me that no matter how many times I interview people around “what needs to be changed around here”, the answer is rarely (if ever) “ME!” or “US!”. But yet that’s exactly what needs to happen if genuine transformation is to occur. To back up my assertion I draw upon the wisdom of Anderson & Anderson Ackerman in their awesome book “Beyond Change Management” (2001).

Very often (with considered questioning) it becomes very apparent that leaders are indicating for one of the first two types of change identified above but may be inclined to over-rate the change they are making by calling it a transformation. After all, if a transformational change is predicated on wake-up calls, who in their right mind would ask for a wake-up call? (I’m not referring to a wake-up call as something that you ask the hotel receptionist to do to make sure you get up in the morning in time for your meeting!!!) While some people and organisations are making the most out of covid19, nobody asked for this crisis!

Pseudo-Agile Transformation vs Genuine Agile Transformation

Here’s what I said in my book around the difference between pseudo and genuine transformation:

To add further confusion to the subject of Agile, which has a major impact on the success of any Agile Transformation, is that in my opinion, there appear to be two different categories of Agile Transformation. To illustrate the two categories of Agile Transformation, it helps to examine them from the point of view of two specific types of change: ‘Transactional change’ and ‘transformational change’. Drawing on the work of many change management gurus (e.g. Heifetz & Laurie, 1997; Anderson & Anderson Ackerman, 2001; Bass & Riggio, 2006) I have created a table (see Table 1) to summarise the differences in these specific types of change.

Thus, using the descriptions in Table 1, it is evident that programmes that purely focus on the delivery of an Agile Process and other transactional change elements are not actually transformations, which is why I refer to this type of Agile Transformation as a ‘Pseudo-Agile Transformation’.  This viewpoint is strongly aligned with the thinking of Anderson & Anderson Ackerman (2001) who also contend that unless leadership mindset is addressed as part of the change initiative, then there will be little or no transformation at all.

Buchan, M. (2019) “Leaders, its not how you finish …it’s how you start!”

Table 1: Types of Change

Change the leaders or change the leaders

Of course, the above sentiment is unwelcome news for leaders who are asking me to come in and change their organisation on their behalf. From my perspective its what I call a career-limiting or a zero-contract move. Leaders hire consultants to come in and change the organisation for them, not recognising the systemic impact that their behaviours, mindsets and attitudes that having. This is why when I crafted the first principle of Agile leadership (Actions speak louder than words) I was asking leaders to make sure that they also put their change at the forefront of the organisational culture change. Otherwise are the leaders suggesting that the problems lie with “them” not “us”.

How do we know we have transformed?

This is a most interesting question and one that ought to keep leaders awake at night. I love the Einstein quote that states something along the lines of:

Problems cannot be solved by the same mind that created the problem


Or how about this classic which I have heard said is misattributed to Einstein

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result

In short transformation CANNOT come about with doing “typical” change, in traditional ways. As suggested by Anderson and Anderson-Ackerman a wake-up call will be needed to make transformative change. But let’s assume for a moment that this isn’t the case and transformation can come about without the need for crisis or chaos; then how would leaders be able to judge a new state for the organisation as transformative if their mindset hadn’t evolved to conceptualise the new state? Who would judge the new state if not the leaders? Employees? Stakeholders? Users? Customers.

In short I dont think its up to the consultant crafting the roadmap of change on behalf of the leaders, or the leaders themselves to say that transformation has occurred unless … these individuals have themselves been through some Damascian event that has provided paradigm-shifting insight that has inspired the change through the organisation.

Its easier to assess when organisations haven’t transformed

I remember once being told by a partner in a large consulting firm that they has run close to 100 Agile transforamtions for their clients! I bit my tongue and rather than say “what bollocks!” I smiled encouragingly and asked “how do you know they were transformed?” I received some wooly consultant type answer that reminded me that consultants, more than anyone, tend to believe their own hype (Dunning Kruger effect, confirmation and experimenter bias to name a few of distortions of mindset that impede their clear thinking on the matter).

My test on whether the transformation has been a success is a simple one but doesn’t yield me any nice warm fuzzy feeling around my impact or sense of agency in assisting my cleints to transform; here is the test …

Go back in five years time and see how much further the organisation has evolved. The unfortunate discovery may be one of the following:

  1. the organisation reverted to its old ways
  2. the organisation got bought out by a competitor
  3. the organisation went out of business

Were any of the above the transformation the leaders requested at the start … unlikely, but this maybe explains why McKinsey may be right in their research when they say that 77% of digital transformations fail! (I do wonder though how many of McKinsey’s transformation efforts succeed, or maybe they would tell me that they don’t do transformation .. they just cost cut!!!!)

In closing

Not exactly a cheery article is it? but an altogether sobering and realistic one I feel. In short, I feel that the word transformation is so loaded and really ought to be dropped and instead may be used as an after-the-event assessment of what happened within an organisation once they were hit with a wake-up call such as covid19 or some other crisis. But please don’t tell me about your transformational success until you have gone back to the organisation 5 years later and they tell you how much they changed and continue to change as a result of your interventions. And if this is the case just answer me one question … did the leaders sign up for their change?