When people write that you should ‘transform your business’, what they mean to say is: You should digitalize your business to remain competitive and to meet the expectations of your users. However, that is not a transformation. It is change.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, a transformation is ‘a complete change in the appearance or character of something or someone’ ─ a metamorphosis. The most distinct in this definition is the word ‘complete’. What does this imply?
If a business process, or what the process aims to achieve, doesn’t change the appearance or character of the business completely, it is not a transformation.
Often, the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly is used as an analogy of a genuine transformational process. The transformational steps are commonly known: a butterfly lays an egg from which a larva is born. The larva turns into a pupa or chrysalis from which the butterfly emerges. The butterfly lays her eggs, and so on, repeating the cycle.
However, what most people don’t realize is that before the caterpillar turns into a pupa (chrysalis) it has already shed its skin five (!) times. This is because the exoskeleton of the caterpillar doesn’t grow with its body. So it has to be shed, similar to how a snake sheds its skin. In other words, before the caterpillar transforms, its body has already gone through a number of changes, adapting the skin to its new level of growth.
In a similar manner, companies experience several changes during their lifetime. For instance, its organizational structure or housing facilities may need to change following a merger, or because of a successful market introduction, leading to more employees.
After the fifth change of skin, the caterpillar is ready to mature. To transition from a juvenile to an adult form, it needs to undergo a metamorphosis to a totally different creature. Like most transforming insects, this dissimilar state allows the adult to thrive without the need to compete over habitat or food with a juvenile of the same species.
When a company transforms successfully, causing the new mode of operation to thrive in a completely new form, it entices those that are left behind to follow their lead. However, when market demand remains unchanged, it also provides laggards with more leeway. The evolutionary lessons of insects teaches us that we need to transform completely, preferably to a dissimilar state, to prevent mutual destruction.
The change inside the chrysalis is slow and gradual. The caterpillar’s body digests itself from the inside out. The old body is broken down into imaginal cells but not all the tissues are destroyed. Some old tissues pass onto the insect’s new body.
A business transformation doesn’t mean that every aspect of the business operation has to change into something entirely different: some of the old components can be reused or reconfigurated.
It is important to realize these fundamental differences between change and a full transformational process: while a transformation process leads to a new creature, often following a crisis or urge, change is merely an updated version of one self.
When Netflix decided to stream videos over the internet to replace its DVD-rental business, it decided to withdraw itself from one competitive space and to enter another, leaving behind some of its customer base while hoping to find new.
Sooner or later, every business needs to adopt digital tooling while adapting its business model to match the digital hemisphere. But until you do, be sure to know exactly what it is that you intent to achieve: Do you set out to improve business-as-usual, or do you want to redefine the very essence or appearance of your business?
Digital is fast becoming the new normal but adopting digital tooling doesn’t fundamentally change the appearance or character of the business and, therefore, does not transform the business.
Beware: A true transformation demands an all-in approach, with no turning back. A butterfly can’t change back into a caterpillar: its transformation is irrevocable. And don’t forget to get everybody on-board and well informed to prevent a potentially detrimental failure.