Transformation is all the rage at the moment, but it implies a destination, an end point. Modern Craft’s John Ounpuu suggests there’s more to win if we focus on strategy and adapt accordingly.
Today’s marketing leaders are under immense pressure to change. To modernize and streamline their methods and tools. To upgrade their department. To embody some flavor of more.
The list goes on.
The typical blanket term for all of this is “transformation”. And that’s too bad. Because the wrong language can skew mindsets and warp expectations. It can muddy and obscure things—especially if those things are already a bit muddy to begin with. It can get in the way of progress, instead of enabling it.
So why does the word “transformation” fall short?
First, it implies an ending. As MIT Sloan’s Gerald C. Kane points out, the term usually refers to "a singular process that occurs and is then completed”. Yet most of the work that happens under the umbrella of transformation is about keeping up with a constantly changing environment. Changes in technology. And in customer needs, behaviors and expectations.
We all know that none of this change will be slowing down any time soon. Quite the opposite, in fact. This means that most transformation initiatives will never actually be finished—something too many project teams caught up in our mania for transformation have had to learn the hard way.
Issues with the “T-word” don’t stop there. The dictionary defines transformation as "a thorough or dramatic change”. It’s a metamorphosis. You start out as a caterpillar and you come out as a butterfly. Completely, different. Unrecognizable.
All well and good in a nature documentary or a sci-fi saga. But in a business context, it sounds too much radical and disruptive. Not to mention expensive. Hardly the kind of thing that easily rallies a lot of enthusiastic stakeholder support.
A transformational lens on things also misses a crucial truth: not everything is changing. Yes, there are many shifts happening in technology and culture today. But the fundamentals of human psychology—including the dynamics of decision-making and persuasion that are so important to marketing—remain unchanged.
The same holds true of the work we all do. Yes, there are many changes happening in the marketing world. New tools, tactics and tech abound. But most of the long-standing fundamentals of our discipline (strategy, segmentation, brand positioning, goal-setting etc.) are just as relevant and important as ever. Probably even more so because—like a predator scanning the landscape for prey—we’re focused only on what’s moving and ignoring everything else.
The bottom line: our obsession with transformation needs to stop. It’s time to come up with a better word. One that does a better job of describing what we’re actually doing—and why.
I vote for “adaptation”.
Here’s why …
It’s an ongoing process, not a huge project with a ballooning budget and an end date that never quite arrives.
It’s never about changing for the sake of change. It’s about identifying and then responding to the changes that matter—and ignoring the ones that don’t. It’s about changing when doing so provides an advantage. This brings us back to the realm of strategy, which, as Harvard’s Michael Porter reminds us, is all about “choosing what not do”.
An adaptive lens on things also rescues us from the tech-fueled fear and anxiety that have led the rise of what I’ve come to think of as the “transformation industrial complex”. It gives us freedom to focus on what matters.
It also brings us back to solid ground. Back to our natural terrain as marketers. We excel, after all, at seeking out and capitalizing on sources of competitive advantage. This is the essence of what we do. We seek out untapped opportunities that others have missed. We look for ways to build on our unique strengths, overcome our weaknesses and chart a path to sustained growth.
Most importantly, looking at this work as “adaption” instead of “transformation” allows us to push past the intimidation and paralysis that naturally arise when we’re faced with the prospect of a big, dramatic change. It allows us to jump from theory to practice with more confidence and less hesitation. To put one foot in front of the other and forget about the pressure. It allows us, finally, to get started.