Is it change or transformation, and does it matter?

Leaders frequently underestimate what’s needed for true transformation – yet it’s a crucial consideration if they want to reach their ambitious goals.


In the last month I’ve worked in depth with over twenty leaders from very different sectors.  Of these nine have been charged with fundamentally changing the way their business runs.  In this post I want to talk about my conversations with three of them

  • the Deputy Chief Executive of a government agency
  • the Head of Procurement for a global IT business
  • The Headmaster of an independent school

All three were grappling with the size and scope of their challenge.  As I reflected on the three sessions I saw a common theme.  The big question underlying each was the same.

Change or transformation  – what am I really dealing with?


As coach and change consultant it’s easy to offer methodologies and solutions. I have learned to resist the temptation.

Sometimes the most powerful interventions are deceptively simple.  This one comes from Professor Eddie Obeng, writing in Project (1).  It’s relevant for anyone grappling with the size and scope of their remit.

  1. Draw a picture of a caterpillar.  Imagine for a moment that it’s your project
  2. Now think about your ambition. What does the caterpillar want to achieve?

Will it be satisfied with getting bigger and fatter?  i.e. finding more cabbages and eating them quicker

Or does it want to turn into something quite different – a butterfly?

To survive and thrive as a butterfly, it must learn to fly and to gather nectar. This requires a complete transformation

You cannot give a caterpillar wings and expect it to turn into a butterfly

Transformation requires three things


  • Energy to fuel and maintain it
  • Security, scaffolding and space for  transformation (the cocoon)
  • Development of the capabilities to survive and thrive as a butterfly

Now think about your ambitions. What are you aiming to do – change or transform?

Eddie argues that to succeed with transformation you need to deliver three types of interwoven project.  Projects that attend to the three areas listed above

Before our coaching conversations each of my three clients knew that they had to transform rather than change their business.  Each had a clear sense that new capabilities would be  required in the future and each recognised the need for a compelling vision

Yet during our conversations it became clear that each was underestimating what it would take to reach their ambitious goals.  None had really appreciated the effort required to constantly fuel and maintain the transformation by referencing the vision.  None had considered providing scaffolding, security and space for transformation.

Essentially, they were trying to add wings to a caterpillar.

This sample may be small and unscientific.  However, it highlights a bigger and important  pattern.  Leaders routinely underestimate what it takes to achieve real transformation.

The caterpillar metaphor provides an accessible route to for SRO’s, project and programme leaders explore a crucial question – are we confusing change and transformation?  It enables them to take a high level view about what is missing.



  1. Join the Revolution! Eddie Obeng, Project, Autumn 2017