A great candidate for the dustbin of discarded business jargon is the term ‘transformation.’ Correctly used by caterpillars transforming into butterflies or by dictatorships into democracies, the word has been appropriated by executives and consultants to signal ‘BIG CHANGE.’

Yet most of the time the change in question is not even close to transformative. Reducing cycle time in a factory or making more customer-centric decisions are not transformative regardless of how expensive or tricky these changes might be.

This came to mind recently when I was invited by the senior managers of a thriving regional insurance company to advise them about ‘transforming’ the culture of their underwriting function.

The 100-year-old conservative company was enormously successful even in these uncertain times. Their success was based on strict underwriting standards and by acquiring and quickly integrating smaller insurers into what they called ‘the mother ship.’

At the time I met with them, the company was experiencing growing pains. They had gotten so large through acquisitions that their regional underwriting structure had become overly costly and was seen as a limitation to growth.  Their larger customers were growing too. They expected to be treated more as national accounts than as regional customers, with value-added services and specialized care.

Adapting is not Transforming

Expert consultants recommended what they called a ‘transformation’ of the underwriting function. Rather than organize by geographic region, they proposed organizing by size of policy being applied for.  For instance, their largest clients would receive specialized underwriting from a centralized source. For medium sized customers, regional client reps would forward applications to the centralized underwriting function, while maintaining local presence. And smaller applications would be managed locally, as always.

As I sat in a paneled conference room the managers discussed some of their concerns. They kept returning to the resistance they expected when they implemented the ‘transformation’ – thus their interest in talking with me, a so-called ‘expert in change management.’

Yet as I listened I was struck by how much change the company had already absorbed over the years. After all, they kept purchasing smaller insurance companies, which created enormous turbulence for all involved. These acquisitions required people to constantly establish new relationships, and integrate computer systems, performance management processes, and even cultures.  I believed their capacity to change made them a unique company, and was part of their success over the years.

Why, I wondered aloud, were they so worried about resistance to an organizational change that seemed well thought through and easy to understand? And I asked why they were so insistent on calling it a ‘transformation?’

This prompted an awkward pause and averted eyes.  Finally, the most senior manager in the room said that their own bosses kept calling it a ‘transformation,’ while the people in the room all knew it was not. She said the only people who might experience the change as transformation were those same bosses. Many of them were resisting the change, she said, because it shifted power away from regional leaders. Most managers and staff would adapt, as they always had when asked to make reasonable shifts in structure or processes.

A Change by Any Other Name…

 So the resistance to change wasn’t coming from the rank-and-file of the organization — it was coming from the very top. Once this taboo topic was on the table, the issue of ‘transformation’ was more accurately described as a need to create better alignment at the senior level of the company BEFORE the proposed ‘transformation’ was launched. Otherwise, they risked lack of commitment of key executives, which could lead to subtle sabotage or at minimum, confusion.

As we ‘transformed’ (ha-ha) the project from helping the rank-and-file through their resistance to change, to that of supporting their bosses align to and rally around the change, the managers look relieved. I was asked to accompany the most senior manager to meet with their bosses to discuss the outcomes from our meeting.

I accepted the invitation under one condition: they had to stop calling the change a ‘transformation’ – the term was likely to generate the very resistance they were concerned about, because using the term in this circumstance would only scare the pants off everybody unnecessarily.  We all laughed and they made that promise.

Leaders beware: the last thing you want to do is use language that creates resistance or fear when you are trying to lead change. Imposed change is hard enough already so don’t make it worse. In other words, if you aren’t a caterpillar or a dictator, reserve the term ‘transformation’ for when you really need it.© Robert Ponzoni -ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 2008

Note to Readers: do you know of any other candidates of business jargon that should be discarded into the dustbin? We’d love to hear your comments on this topic…


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