Transactions vs. Transformations

I was lamenting to my friend over lunch about the perceived “failure” of a recent project that I had been deeply invested in, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. As he asked what happened, I told him I thought we had agreed on doing transformational work together and it feels like I was part of a transaction.

To which he replied, “Great! Go write a few paragraphs on transactions vs. transformations.

So, here they are.

Transaction: an instance of buying or selling something; a business deal.
Transformation: a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance.

“We want this transaction to transform our culture.” Won’t happen. Not when the transaction has to maintain and preserve what are often held as “non-negotiable” cultural norms and traditional business metrics, not to mention protecting our fragile egos.

Transformational work typically has a longer view. It likely considers a broader set of stakeholders, accepts and celebrates risk and “failing” as an integral part of creativity, and actually rips apart our delicate egos. Transformational work looks unblinkingly at a Purpose and a future to which we all serve at the pleasure of, which will not come about if we maintain our entrenched “that’s just how it’s done around here” excuses.

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If we want to achieve results we’ve never achieved before, we must become leaders we’ve never been before.

During the past 25 years, I have been steeped in conversations primarily related to building and growing businesses and the various ways we attempt to maximize the performance of the individual and collective human dynamic in order to achieve our desired results.

What I have come to experience more often than not is while people and organizations ask for help with transformational change, the transformational efforts are many times doomed from their inception as they are cast as transactions… business deals.

A transformation cannot be born from a transactional mindset.

It’s impossible. The nature of a transaction goes something like, “we’ll pay you X dollars for Y service in order to get Z outcome”. And so, if Y service offered by a coach or consultant does not produce Z outcome, many times the coach or consultant is removed, the transaction ends, and so does the transformation.

Transformational work is ultimately the responsibility of the party who is asking (and needing) to be transformed.

Therefore, transformational success is directly related to people’s willingness to endure the required pain that comes from tearing away long-held and deeply sacred beliefs, behaviors, cultural norms, and systems and allowing them to die. Yes, die. Transformational work is painful. The very nature of our relationship with what we hold as deeply sacred actually determines the volume, duration and quality of the suffering that accompanies this pain. The pain is given; our suffering emerges through how we engage it.

We must recognize that unexpected outcomes, stumbles, and falling are the path of transformational work.

We must be willing to become destabilized, inefficient, awkward, and ineffective in order to transform ourselves into a new way of being that eventually becomes stable, efficient, coordinated, and effective. Watch any toddler learn how to walk. They fall, bump, bonk, break, and bruise, constantly. We transform ourselves from crawling on the ground to walking by falling down…over and over and over.

Falling is the path of transformational work.

Falling is generally not welcomed in a transaction.

Transactions are like, “this for that.

Transformations are like, “we all come into this relationship one way, and we move through the work and the relationship in ways that leave us each reordered, reshaped, and literally reborn into new ways of being by one another and the shared experience.

Organizations asking for transformation, while engaging in transactional ways of being with their people and their partners, will continue to struggle in a “this for that” paradigm.

They’re perpetually wondering why people aren’t engaged, wondering why we never really hit our stated performance targets and never really realize the full potential of what’s possible. The organization fails to evolve in ways that transform the people, culture, and communities they serve.

If you are not willing to have a substantial part of your identity, your patterns, your culture, your decision making, your predictable known universe to be blown away, you will not allow for the breakthroughs that you so desperately seek; performance stagnates and eventually deteriorates. This leaves everyone more frustrated than when we began the journey as another “flavor of the month” is cast away and we regress to the comfort of our known and predictable pain.

Spring does not negotiate a transaction with winter in order to achieve some result. It does not get frustrated and give up during the process. It follows a natural evolutionary path of death and birth; a transformation that promotes the emergence of new and beautiful possibilities for life.

So, if you are looking for transformational outcomes, don’t expect transactions to get the job done. Find partners who care deeply about your purpose and your people, and who embrace the pain and the mess as the path.

And, as best you can, take comfort knowing that you are simply a participant in the natural cycles of life and death, which we are all subject to, without exception. Attempting to shape transactions in order to avoid these natural rhythms only prolongs and intensifies the pain and leaves us dreaming about a better life, a better business… someday.

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