Change vs Transformation: What Are the Differences?

Over the past decade, “transformation” has become the new buzzword replacing good, old, ordinary “change.” People use the two terms interchangeably, but are they really the same? When it comes to change vs transformation, what are the differences?

Look up “change” in a dictionary. It is described as “to substitute or replace something.” “Transformation,” on the other hand, is defined as “a complete change, usually into something with an improved appearance or usefulness.” There is definitely a lot of similarity. And the results may look exactly alike to an outside observer.

The difference is important because businesses of every size are facing  a once-in-a-generation challenge: how they will survive and thrive in a post COVID-19 world. Gartner’s 2021 CIO Agenda pushes readers to “seize this opportunity for digital business acceleration.”

So when we talk about change and transformation in an enterprise setting, what is the difference? And why is it important?

Change vs Transformation

CHANGE can be small and incremental, or it can be large and complex. But it is something that needs to be constantly monitored and maintained. Think of all of the change management processes and procedures in an IT organization. You do not put them in place and hope for the best. Every one of these processes has an owner and metrics and involves continual improvements. Change is typically a shorter-term response to new external factors, or evolving assumptions. Examples of change could include initiatives like:

No one of these is insignificant. All can be seen as shorter-term responses to market forces.

TRANSFORMATION is almost always large and significant. Transformation is an internal fundamental evolution of your beliefs of why you perform certain actions. Transformation may not require any external influence to maintain, but it does require foundational shifts from within. Just a few examples of transformation include:

Transformation is fundamental in nature. And when it’s done right, transformation has a permanent and far-reaching impact throughout the organization.

Cases in Point

Microsoft’s addition of mouse compatibilty to MS-DOS’s Microsoft Word was a big change for 1983. Apple’s introduction of a graphical interface that used the mouse as an input tool across the entire Mac OS 1.0 just a year later was transformation.

As a more recent example, companies’ quick shift to a work-from-home model during COVID-19 pandemic is change. Slack’s June 2020 announcement that it was permanently moving to a hybrid workforce model that all but eliminates the idea of “headquarters” as the operating heart of the company is transformation.

Transformation In Action

Here is an example of why this difference is so important.

A few years ago, we were asked to help an IT organization that had frequent service outages. The business units were unhappy, and IT management had failed with two prior change programs to resolve the issue.

What did we do differently? We guided the company toward a core shift that recognized their people were passionate about service delivery. They became great firefighters out of necessity to ensure good service. We showed them that to deliver excellent service, they needed to become “fire preventers.” We helped them change their beliefs about how to provide excellent service prior to the problem arising. Their new, altered actions achieved the desired results.

The prior two efforts had changed processes and procedures without ever addressing the employees’ basic beliefs that providing good service meant being a good firefighter—driven to act swiftly in response to a problem that already occurred. The two change programs had failed where the transformation program succeeded. Shifting from that response-motivated mindset to the forward-thinking, forward-acting approach of preventing conditions that led to the outages in the first place had stunning results.

Working with the IT team with the goal of transforming service fundamentals rather than simply trying to change what hadn’t been working, we eliminated more than 90 percent of outages and more than two-thirds of emergency changes in less than six months.

IT organizations have been successfully executing change programs for decades. Yet, some of them do not achieve the desired results or they simply fail outright. Why? Think about your unsuccessful change programs. Were you trying to use standard change management program principles when what was actually needed was a fundamental change in beliefs?

Before you launch your next major initiative, consider the following three questions:

  • Will simply following new processes and procedures achieve the intended results? Or is something more foundational needed?
  • Are monitoring and metrics enough to maintain the desired state?
  • Do your people have a fundamental belief that is not in line with your desired end state?

Key Takeaway

Bottom line: Change is a response to external influences, where modifying day-to-day action achieves desired results. Transformation is about modifying core beliefs and long-term behaviors—sometimes in profound ways—to achieve the desired results. Mastering change may enable companies to keep up with fast-shifting consumer expectations. But deliberate, planned transformation often redefines what success looks like and how you get there.


UPDATED February 5, 2021 – We can all agree that the generational change brought about by a worldwide pandemic is driving digital transformation at near-breakneck speed. But has the relationship between change and transformation evolved? We’ve updated this top article to address how the Change v. Transformation conversation impacts you as a CIO.

John Palinkas
John Palinkas
John Palinkas is a partner at The IT Transformation Institute. ITTI is a catalyst for transforming the IT industry. ITTI helps change the DNA of IT teams, solving today’s problems and breaking the cycles that led to them, and to create next-generation IT organizations. John has spent more than three decades in the IT services industry, working with industry leaders like AT&T, AT&T Solutions and British Telecom. He has led numerous multimillion dollar, multiyear outsourcing and service-delivery engagements for dozens of Fortune 500 firms. He has extensive experience and expertise in IT transformation efforts, outsourcing analysis, M&A integrations and service implementations. He can be reached via email at, and you can follow him on Twitter via @jpalinkas.

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