Transformation, new key concept for 2009

Bruce nussbaum As the author of a book called Transformations, I was very pleased to see that Bruce Nussbaum has declared Transformation the new "key concept of 2009" and a successor to Innovation.

"Innovation" implies changing what is. "Transformation" implies creating what's new. That's what we need today, a huge amount of totally "new."

Nussbaum and I don't quite mean the same thing by "transformation." My book is about how individuals change themselves.  He is talking about corporations, organizations and societies.  

But I expect there are structural similarities. 

1) new notions of structure

1a) as a result of transformational activities, the contemporary individual builds a complicated, messy selfhood.  As one of my respondents told me, "I like to think of myself as a cheap motel.  There are lots of people living here, not all of them on speaking terms."  If once we thought about the self as something with a certain structural clarity, now we don't.  So the selfhood built by 19th century Victorians and 20th century modernists, these now look overdetermined and way too simple.

1b) corporations and societies have their own, new and growing, multiplicity, as they admit more people and more functions, and as they acknowledge a complexity that was always there in any case.  The contemporary corporation is a marvel of complexity, as is the contemporary world.   Now we expect our larger units of organizations to depart from the command and control chart.  It's a flatter world and a less boundaried one. The division of labor and the distribution of power is less clear.  (The office of the Mayor of New York City, Michael Blumberg, is sometimes used here as a case in point.) 

2)  how to we manage this new kind of complexity

2a) there is a sort of just in time quality. Personal lives have taken on an improvisational quality.  We don't have standing roles and objectives so much as we engage in an ongoing process of informed, and we hope inspired improv.

2b) Corporations too.  In the last 20 years we have seen the death of long range planning and the five year plan.  Now we look to complexity theory, sense and respond models.  This is one of the reason that power is more distributed.  Key decisions must sometimes be made on the spot by the personnel in place.  Sending things up the hierarchy and waiting for their return would take too long.

3) So how does the "executive" (decision making) function work now?

3a) This is the big challenge for individuals and it reguires new powers of pattern recognition, the ability to skip from one interpretive frame to another, a willingness to see where the world has changed and the new responses that are called for (even when it takes us out of our "comfort zone")

3b) go figure.  It's identical for the corporation.  Only the nouns have been changed.  Thus: This is the big challenge for the corporation and it reguires new powers of pattern recognition, the ability to skip from one interpretive frame to another, a willingness to see where the world has changed and the new responses that are called for (even when it takes us out of our "comfort zone").

References

Nussbaum, Bruce.  2008. "Innovation" is Dead.  Herald the Birth of "Transformation" as the Key Concept for 2009.  Nussbaum on Design. BusinessWeek.  December 31, 2008.  here.

Nussbaum, Bruce.  2009.  The Transformation Conversation.  Nussbaum on Design.  Businessweek.  here.

McCracken, Grant.  2008.  Transformations.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.  here.

3 thoughts on “Transformation, new key concept for 2009”

  1. So the selfhood built by 19th century Victorians and 20th century modernists, these now look overdetermined and way too simple

    Fascinating to see that almost forty years on the once-revolutionary central message of The Dice Man, and therefore of the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s, seems to be accepted almost casually as a given.

  2. Hmm – there seems to be a typo in the first quote. As a non native speaker of English I had to check this in the dictionary – but Meriam-Webster seems to confirm my intuition that “transformation” is about changing something (composition, structure, appearance) while “innovation” is about “introducing something new”, i.e. completely opposite of what the quote suggests.

  3. My colleague Dick Rumelt has just written an article for the McKinsey Quarterly entitled “Strategy in a ‘structural break'” about how the current macroeconomic turmoil might create opportunities for companies.

    One of his main conclusions is that the complexity of our firms, built up during a period of growth to seize opportunities in all directions, is likely to be counterproductive now that firms will need to focus, contract, and improve their efficiency. The increasing amount of knowledge sharing and communications across vague structural boundaries, adopted to exploit various potential synergies and growth opportunities, may exacerbate management problems and compromise the quality and cost of firms’ output. He points out that SG&A as a percentage of pretax expenses started to accelerate in the mid-1980s, and argues that beyond the increasing importance of knowledge workers “It also reflects a more intense commitment to very complex systems comprising individual parts whose productivity is almost impossible to measure…The risk is that in hard times, the system becomes the problem.”

    An example of this burgeoning complexity: “Phillip Su, a Windows Vista software engineering manager, reports that the intensity of coordination on this project created ‘a phenomenon by which process engenders further process, eventually becoming a self-sustaining buzz.’ We have all experienced this unanticipated side effect of apparently cheap communications.” Sounds a lot like old C. Northcote Parkinson, doesn’t it?

    We may see things get simplified in the near term in a big way–pseudo-synergies are out and focus is going to be in (c.f. Citigroup). Maybe.

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