When transformational is not really transformational

Transformation is one of this most over-used words in the schools world. We talk about ‘transformational leadership’ or ‘transforming standards’ a lot, but we rarely seem to question what that actually means, or whether what we are looking for or achieving is not just incremental change or marginal gain.

More importantly, however, we rarely stop to consider what’s driving our apparent need for the concept of transformation, and therefore why we do actually need to settle for nothing less. Because really, if there was ever more need for *real* transformation, it is now.

This has niggled me for some time, but has been brought into sharper relief recently by two things.

Firstly, a series of recent articles in the McKinsey Quarterly has shed light on how ‘big business’ is increasingly recognising that the old ways are no longer good enough to thrive – or survive, even – in a fast changing global operating environment. They outline how the changes of last 50 years have disrupted management and leadership practice in all areas of business, but how the pace of change forecast for the next few decades (let alone the next 50) requires a new form of dynamism; a transformed way of organising and doing business.

“In the years ahead, acceleration in the scope, scale, and economic impact of technology will usher in a new age of artificial intelligence, consumer gadgetry, instant communication, and boundless information while shaking up business in unimaginable ways. At the same time, the shifting locus of economic activity and dynamism, to emerging markets and to cities within those markets, will give rise to a new class of global competitors. Growth in emerging markets will occur in tandem with the rapid aging of the world’s population—first in the West and later in the emerging markets themselves—that in turn will create a massive set of economic strains.

Any one of these shifts, on its own, would be among the largest economic forces the global economy has ever seen. As they collide, they will produce change so significant that much of the management intuition that has served us in the past will become irrelevant. The formative experiences for many of today’s senior executives came as these forces were starting to gain steam. The world ahead will be less benign, with more discontinuity and volatility and with long-term charts no longer looking like smooth upward curves, long-held assumptions giving way, and seemingly powerful business models becoming upended.”

Management intuition for the next 50 years

This piece, for example, outlines the shifting economic, political and cultural tides, and offers four scenarios for planning, which surely cannot be ignored by anyone with a professional responsibility to prepare children for life and work in the real world. No organisation will be immune to the effects of urbanisation, demographics shifts, climate change, technological innovation and connectivity, least of all those which seek to engage young people.

More specifically, this piece reviews data which indicates young people will be poorer than their parents, whilst this piece looks at the economics of gender inequality. Finally, this piece looks at how to achieve transformational strategy, and avoid the sort of failures that can be fatal:

“What we’re focused on here is something different: a transformation with a capital T, which we define as an intense, organization-wide program to enhance performance and to boost organizational health. When such transformations succeed, they radically improve the important business drivers, such as topline growth, capital productivity, cost efficiency, operational effectiveness, customer satisfaction, and sales excellence. Because such transformations instill the importance of internal alignment around a common vision and strategy, increase the capacity for renewal, and develop superior execution skills, they enable companies to go on improving their results in sustainable ways year after year. These sorts of transformations may well involve exploiting new digital opportunities or accompany a strategic rethink. But in essence, they are largely about delivering the full potential of what’s already there.”

The second prompt was a meeting with a research associate at Oxford’s Said Business School, and a subsequent reading of Ramirez & Wilkinson’s Strategic Reframing book, an account of the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach (OSPA), which sets out how one might go about taking a view on the shifts outlined by McKinsey in a way that informs organisational strategy. The time for a quick SWOT & PESTLE analysis before governors turn to the latest behaviour policy is long past, I’m afraid!

This is really big picture stuff, and it requires us to face some really uncomfortable questions.

But that’s great, isn’t it? Isn’t that what strategic leadership is about? Not just steering the ship and planning the destination, but working on next year’s schedule too, no?

I’ve always found analogies helpful, and am reminded of that beautiful art gallery scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off when Cameron gets right into George Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. As with all impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, the work only really makes sense at a distance, when you can see the whole thing. Only then is it possible to see what the elements are doing together, and why they have been arranged in a certain way. Only then is it possible to understand that the whole is other than the sum of the parts.

What are schools *really* for? And why? What are schools in the business of creating? And how? What part can schools play in the development of a positive utopian future? And when?

What both the McKinsey pieces and the OSPA work do is clarify that organisations – including schools – have two choices when faced with the undeniable need to change. They can adapt and keep pace with social needs, or they can just become stagnant public infrastructure, and go obsolete.

It’s that stark.

Surely school- and school-system leaders can no longer remain in splendid isolation from these changes. Because whether we like it or not, schools are part of a wider economic, social and cultural system.

More than that, though, schools recreate that system.

Schools are where it all starts.

To keep acting as if we are somehow detached from it is almost pathological. We can’t keep putting our heads in the sand. To maintain one’s blissful ignorance of these issues is now grossly irresponsible.

I’m doing some more thinking around this, and will post occasional thought pieces as they arise …