Transformation vs. Change: What's the difference?

By Deanna deBara | Published September 21, 2021

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Understanding those differences is an absolute must if your organization is trying to move forward with change or transformation.


business case for automationIn the business world, certain concepts tend to get lumped together—even though understanding their differences leads to successful outcomes.

Two such concepts? Transformation and change.

Change and transformation may seem like the same thing. While there's no arguing that the two concepts are related, there are critical differences between them. These differences are often overlooked or misunderstood, leading to organizational challenges or flat-out failure (for example, according to data from McKinsey, a whopping 70 percent of corporate transformation programs fail). 

Understanding those differences is an absolute must if your organization is trying to move forward with change or transformation. But what, exactly, are the differences between transformation and change? How does each impact the organization and team? And how can you adapt to ensure that you successfully continue moving forward—whether your company is looking to make minor changes or fully transform the organization?

What's the difference between transformation and change?

Before you can understand the differences between transformation and change, you need to understand what, exactly, each is.

Change (also known as change management) refers to implementing a finite initiative or set of connected initiatives—to make a clear, measurable shift on how a specific aspect of the business functions. Change initiatives are clear and well-defined; they focus on changing policies, procedures, and processes to achieve a particular goal.

For example, let's say your company wants to improve the company's process around managing customer complaints—and, to do so, introduces a new customer management software that allows CSRs to address customer concerns in a more timely manner. That kind of shift would fall under the "change" umbrella.

Transformation, on the other hand, is a larger concept. If change is about shifting something specific within the business, transformation is about shifting the company. It's a process of reinventing the way the organization does business—and then doing whatever it takes to ensure that reinvention permeates everything the company does.

So, for example, if introducing a new customer management software would be considered change, a full-blown transformation would involve a more overarching shift towards becoming a more customer-centric organization. Such an effort would include a variety of initiatives aimed at fostering that transformation across the company, for example: expanding the customer service team, investing in training for leadership and employees on how to encourage more positive customer interactions, running focus groups to learn more about the customer base, and changing the company's product offerings to serve the customers' needs better). Transformation is more about changing the company's DNA—and making a shift to an entirely new and different business model.

Bottom line? Change is concrete and defined—while transformation is more loosely defined and overarching. And while change looks to shift specific functions within the business, transformation aims to change the company. 

The impact of change vs. transformation

Both change and transformation can profoundly impact an organization, but how they affect the company, and the team is generally different.

When a company moves forward with a change management strategy, changes will be straightforward to identify as they happen. For example, if the company wants to change an internal process—and rolls out new software to initiate that change—it will be apparent to affected employees that the change has been implemented (since they'll be using the latest software).

The shifts associated with transformation can be harder to define. Using the example mentioned earlier, if your company is looking to transform into a more customer-centric organization, there will be many moving parts to facilitate the shift—some strategic, some tactical. Employees may not be aware of everything happening as it's happening; it's not until the transformation is well underway (or, in some cases, complete) that the real impact is understood. 

Tips to succeed during change or transformation

Whether your company is going through a set of well-defined changes—or is in the midst of a full-blown organizational transformation—there are steps you can take to successfully navigate the shifts taking place in your company, including:

Be flexible.

Whether your company is going through a clearly defined change or a more broad transformation, things will be different—and if you try to hold on to the way things are/were, you're going to struggle. Instead, be flexible, open, and willing to adapt.

Take advantage of training opportunities.

As things shift, there will be a lot to learn—so, if your company offers any training or education opportunities related to any changes or transformation, take advantage of them. Learning about how things are shifting will make you better equipped to deal with those shifts—and set you up for success moving forward.

Ask questions.

If you're not sure what your company's change/transformation means for you, your job, and your experience at work, talk to your manager. They can provide insight into how any changes or transformation initiatives will impact your day-to-day, putting you in a position to succeed as said initiatives go into effect.

Better navigate shifts in your company—whether they fall under the change or transformation umbrella.

Change and transformation are two concepts often used interchangeably—but there are apparent (and significant) differences between the two. And now that you understand the differences between transformation and change, you're armed with the information you need to understand better the shifts that may happen within your organization, whether they are transformation or changed-related—and are better prepared to navigate both.

transformation   change   change management   project management   digital transformation  

Business Ideas   Project Management  

Deanna deBara

Deanna deBara is an entrepreneur, speaker, and freelance writer who specializes in business and productivity topics. When she's not busy writing, she enjoys hiking and exploring the Pacific Northwest with her husband and dog. See more of her work and learn more about her services at