Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Transformation versus Metamorphosis in Systems & Organisations

Gone are the days where the method of reducing variation and improving quality was focused on the incremental spread of good practice, using mostly communication methodology from the 1960's. The current mantra is "transformation". I am proposing an alternative, "metamorphosis", which may be a more relevant meaning-making metaphor in some circumstances.

We recognise when an organisation has transformed because we perceive a difference. This difference is usually one to stay. Slipping backwards to the old way is not an option. Transformation is something we recognise after the event. Thousands of books and papers have been published describing the experience of others and their own summary, meaning making and production of frameworks and models. However, underlying all the noise of methodology lies the premise that all transformation requires a behavioural change of significance. In addition, to transform usually requires a high degree of emotional commitment, trauma, distress and joy. Transformation is touted by "those at the top" as a process and outcome that is positive. However, for some it is necessarily an unpleasant process.

An alternative concept is "metamorphosis". This focuses on the striking change in appearance, in form and function, of an organisation or system. Individual may transform their behaviour, organisations and structures may morph into new, innovative and maybe even shocking forms. Morphing can happen slowly, the result of an incremental drip by drip process. Then we look back and see it now looks totally different. The changes around Mental Health Care in England from the 1970's to date are an example. Experience a deep depression in the 1970's and you would find yourself in an open ward of a Victorian building, treated (in a rough sense of the word) as a curious, complex and perhaps untreatable patient. Nowadays, you'd be cared for in the home by multi-disciplinary teams who recognise you as an individual with a family and personal set of circumstances. While drugs may be used, talking therapies also abound.

So what is it you are wanting from your quality improvement work? Are you requiring the sorcery of personal transformation or the magic of metamorphosis? Is the aim a behavioural one or a structural version? Of course both overlap and are dependent on each other, though a focus on form is different to a focus on individual behaviour. The resulting process and consequential outcomes will also differ.

One way to use these concepts is to think of transformation as a bottom up behavioural approach and metamorphosis as a top down structural and form based strategy. The two are related, differently.

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