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  • Writer's pictureGunjan Syal

Change vs. Transformation

Updated: Sep 11, 2023

I had the honour of hosting a joint TED Circles and Emerald Technology Group Inc. discussion circle on August 25, 2020, titled 'Change vs. Transformation'. We had representation from people working in at least 4 industries, 6 countries and 4 continents. It was incredibly insightful to hear so many personal stories and perspectives, at a global scale. My gratitude to everyone who joined and shared such a wealth of experience! This is a summary of some key takeaways from my perspective.

I requested participants to share one thing each they'd like to take away from the conversation, at the beginning:

  • Most attendees expressed interest in discussing effectiveness of organizational transformation in current landscape.

  • They were also interested in inclusion strategies for diverse groups, which are often left unrepresented - those with disabilities, women, racialized groups, sexual orientations, low income levels, and those suffering from the effects of digital divide due to the pandemic.

  • Some were interested in the conversation from a learning and development point of view - how to ensure we are preparing the future leaders for success.

Change vs Transformation

We started the discussion with Terry Jackson's TEDx talk as a reference point (video below). Then, we dove into various interesting topics.

Change vs. transformation - Is there a difference?

We discussed Terry's definition in the video - change is something that has occurred in the past; transformation is something you make happen for the better future. We agreed that deeper discussion was required on this topic. Different point of views included:

  • Change itself is not transformational.

  • Change may be a point in time adjustment at small scale.

  • Change may be reactionary and not holistic.

  • Transformation requires vision/ strategy, that's bigger than change.

  • Transformation is about amplified results.

  • Change may be something that leads to transformation.

  • When thinking of change and transformation, build upon what is already there. Learn the context and reasons behind current state, before proposing changes.

After the discussion, Shreyas shared his key insights from this part of the conversation on LinkedIn (image included with permission).

Personally, I agree with Shreyas' assessment. In my work with organizational transformations, the businesses who have built their transformations with the focus on iterative changes have been able to pivot strategically and stay competitive in the face of recent unpredictability. Key is to gain crystal-clarity at all times on what the business considers success and what factors define/ threaten this definition. This has been the very focus of my work for the last year - a dynamic transformational framework, which I have been field testing. But, this is a conversation for another day.

From here, we dove into personal stories and experiences, centered on many key themes. I am summarizing a handful of them below (personal details and names removed for preserving privacy).

What is the role of diversity and inclusion on transformations? How do we bring every one along?

We acknowledged the mass-shift to online and digital platforms recently. Being online is now a necessity to continue living a normal life. For accessing education, food, clothing, ensuring health & safety, and much more. We discussed how online world is redefining diversity and inclusion discussions.

For the disabled and the elderly, how can we ensure digital literacy? They will need these capabilities to support their needs during the pandemic. One participants shared their experience and challenges in running a digital literacy initiative in a European country for all residents, including those with disabilities. There are a myriad of challenges involved in bringing the hearing and sight impaired online. Doing so remotely during the pandemic is even more difficult without physical access to support them. There is also need for special systems design to address the needs of this group. However, the guiding public policies are regional, and sometimes non-existent. As another participant shared, this makes it incredibly difficult to design an inclusive and accessible website, without risks of lawsuits.

I shared a personal story about a local family-owned Korean restaurant that expanded it's racially-focused customer segment during 'take-out only' COVID phase. This group catered to the traditional Korean population (~95% of regular customers before COVID) and those that enjoy the non-vegetarian meals. As a vegetarian myself, I avoided this restaurant in past. Then, I noticed they began advertising new take-out menus each day online and via paper pamphlets - Mexican, Indian, Thai... When I talked to the owner, they explained their customer volume, revenue and relationships with the local population have improved after they collaborated with other restaurants/chefs who were also struggling. They combined their efforts to keep themselves in business with economies of scale and thrived when so many had to shut their doors. The variety at the same place kept bringing people back. I was so impressed with ingenuity that I am now working with this group to scale their efforts into a permanent business model in multiple locations.

What does diversity even mean to various cultures?

Through some personal anecdotes, we learned that the definition of diversity varies based on location around the globe. Most of us may not notice it, as our perspectives remain trained within the confines of our particular geographies and cultures.

A participant shared their cross-cultural experience having European roots, experience from living and working in Japan, and their recent experience immigrating to Canada. While working in Japan for a multi-national company, this participant describes the corporate diversity programs explicitly focused on women. This individual could be considered a racial visible minority in the context of Japan, and felt purposely excluded. Their experience of being the odd-one-out has offered deeper perspectives as they develop a life in Canada. They volunteer and engage with different cultures to ensure Canadian visible minorities are supported because they "know how it feels". A true testament that we are all product of our experiences. Both good and bad experiences help shape our overall perspective - we must choose what change vs. transformations we bring in our environment using that perspective.

The place of women in our societies. The above anecdote triggered a memory for me, which I did not share due to time constraints, so I will include it here! About a month ago, I had an odd experience in a client meeting which left me stumped at first. A male manager during a video conference meeting cut me off and said "yea, yea, yea, Gunjan, let me jump in...". Later in the same discussion, the same individual asked me this after I finished a sentence: "are you done?" Each time it happened, I brushed it off and it was seen as permission to continue this behaviour. I was rewarded with repeated instances in multiple discussions over a period of 2 weeks. I thought this was extremely odd and did not know how to react. My surprise was based on 2 reasons:

  1. The manager and I both share Indian heritage and 10+ years in Canada. Indian culture reveres women in temples as goddesses and at home as mothers/ daughters/ sisters with focused cultural celebrations. Recently, the culture has modernized with men supporting their wives as partners - equally sharing household roles. Somehow, we leave those values behind when we are at the office, and begin practising mansplaining to women.

  2. The public displays of such behaviour in front of the company's senior leadership, without anyone batting an eye, left me questioning my presence there. Needless to say, I did not stay long. I suspect same is true of many other women in my situation at this firm, despite the leadership including a woman CIO.

The key lesson for me from this experience was to pause and verbalize the behaviour when it takes place so it can be explicitly acknowledged. Men may not realize it, this behaviour impacts women leaders' ability to influence those around the table. Now when someone asks me, "are you done?", I tell them no and keep going!

No matter which diverse demographic we are addressing - no one will stand up for us, if we do not stand up for ourselves to initiate a transformation through small, iterative, and impactful changes.This is how change happens...

Social issue requiring global attention

When we deep-dove into the education industry, a key social issue came up. This left some of us pondering how to provide support for an equitable future with no real answers so far.

There is a serious gap in providing education to children whose families can not afford the digital luxuries such as stable internet, laptops and access to teachers digitally. I am deeply concerned about this as it will create a wide digital divide for generations to come. It will also contribute to the unemployment rates and wealth gaps in future that continue to grow.

If you know of any resources that will help the situation, please let me know. I will discreetly connect you to someone who is directly impacted and looking for solutions.

Special thanks to all those who joined and contributed!


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