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The Transformation Conversation: Is "Transformation" a Better Concept Than "Innovation" to Guide us Forward?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on January 03, 2009

We are having a great conversation on one of the most important subjects in our lives—how we can change our broken institutions and out-dated culture to survive and thrive within 21st century forces. The thread is brilliant and I’m learning a lot.

Here are the reasons why I think the concept of “transformation” is of great utility and power than “innovation at this point in time.

1- Our institutions aren’t working. They are broken. Corporations, investment banks, health care, schools, universities, Congress, transportation. The current crisis is accelerating the breakdown in the major institutions of our lives that began in the 90s.

2- Digital technology is disintermediating every organization, eroding the role of all middle men and women, from ad agencies to college professors, from newspaper editors to hospital administrators, from political parties to savings banks. The shape of all our institutions is radically changing.

3- The power to create and participate is moving to the masses. Digital technology is giving everyone the tools to tinker again, to design and shape their learning, their working, their play. Craft is back in newly significant ways that we are just beginning to understand.

4- “Innovation” is inadequate as a concept to deal with these changes. You have “game-changing” innovation, which is big but rare and incremental innovation which is small but common. “Innovation” implies changing what is. “Transformation” implies creating what’s new. That’s what we need today, a huge amount of totally “new.”

5- Design is the answer. I use the term “transformation” to capture the immensity of the task ahead of us and to guide us in the magnitude of that task, but the actual tools, methodologies and, yes, philosophy of that mission is found within the space of design and design thinking. This is what many of those in this thread of a conversation are saying and I agree. It is the design schools that are creating the tools of transformation and graduating the people to implement them, not the business schools (one exception—The Rotman School of Management). It is the Institute of Design in Chicago, The D-School in Stanford, DAAP at The University of Cincinnati, the Parsons School of Design in New York City, The Art Center College in Pasadena and RISD in Providence where “Transformation” is being developed.

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Reader Comments

David Malouf

January 3, 2009 08:36 AM

Ah! it feels like you are framing the topic slightly differently. In this frame, I think there is a lot to be added by design towards the end goal of healing what ails our institutions, but in this game, we must also admit that most of design practice is infected with the same sort of issues that have failed other institutions.

Design definitely needs to be added to the mix, as diversification, and cross-pollination, and even invention of practices are going to be required to lead the drastic amount of change necessary to heal us from the horrible policies and philosophies that have led us into this mess.

The key advantage that design can offer us is its openness to irrational associations as part of a process that leads to rationalized evaluations. We are going to have to see the ridiculous juxtaposed next to the sublime and only then create a model that leads toward the real.

-- dave

Nate Archer

January 3, 2009 03:53 PM

Bruce, Thanks for getting this discussion going, it makes for some very interesting reading.In the original post Dave Malouf hit the nail on the head when he said,

"I see so much energy by people trying to rename "Design". Maybe we just need to stop changing the labels and fess up to our true agenda of trying to bring the creative and social/human sciences to bear on the financial and world problems we are trying to tackle."

As your fifth point alludes to "Design IS the answer."

Forget "Transformation" and "Innovation", if we really want to be transformative let's call a spade a spade.

Prof M P Ranjan

January 3, 2009 04:22 PM


You have a great thread going here looking at the responses that you have on your previous post about the death of Innovation and the birth of Transformation!

However, I think we need to stay focussed on "Transformation" as being "Change" in a positive direction, whatever that may mean, and not as something totally "New".

This where I believe "Design" really scores, since there is no burden of being completely new as in invention but of being meaningful and relevant to the particular context that is being addressed. Sometimes the old is as appropriate and therefore a valid and valuable design offering.

I would add the KaosPilot groups of schools in Scandinavia to your list of Management Schools teaching using Design School skills and knowledge sets as the seat of Transformation in our society as well as some design schools such as the Royal College of Art, London and theNational Institute of Design, India where I teach in India as potential contributors to your list.

Prof M P Ranjan
Faculty of Design
Head, Centre for Bamboo Initiatives at NID (CFBI-NID)
Chairman, GeoVisualisation Task Group (DST, Govt. of India) (2006-2008)
National Institute of Design
Ahmedabad 380 007 India

web site:

steve baker

January 3, 2009 06:18 PM

Bruce, given the enormity of the challenges we face, I'm thinking "metamorphosis" might be more appropriate.

Mark Clare

January 3, 2009 08:07 PM

Is the "better concept" Invention?

If the focus is transformation the key enabler is invention not innovation or even design. Transformations occur when we invent new technologies, business models, service delivery models and ways or organizing work. Invention versus innovation requires the creation of new knowledge not the novel application of existing knowledge.

We need to invent new conceptual models of health, management, education and the like to deal with the root causes of the problems we face today. Design thinking will play a vital role in that process but true transformational design must be preceded by (or at least entangle with) invention.

What we need are conceptually deep insights into these domains (health, management, education) that re-frame them to create value (economic, social, individual meaning) in powerful new ways.

No one field or area - business, design, science or politics has historically had a lock on generating these kinds of insights. They come from all quarters and perhaps by those individuals that are equipped to think like applied philosophers, designers and in business terms.

Michael Melnick

January 3, 2009 10:49 PM

An important addition to this list of fantastic schools in the last section is the Design Management masters program at Pratt Institute in New York. The program is a greenhouse for design thinking with a clear agenda of re-examining existing institutions through the lenses of design, business and sustainability.

Jules Pieri

January 4, 2009 03:28 AM

As the first industrial designer to get an MBA at Harvard, I've been watching this convergence for a long time. I've been waiting for design thinking to really foster fundamental change (and trying to do my bit everywhere I work). We may be at that precipice, created only by real societal tectonic shifts as well as real institutional crisis. I think the people who can blend fluency with social media, a good grasp of human psychology, design ideation muscles, and good old fashioned operating skills are the ones who can crack the big problems we face. And also seize our biggest opportunity: figuring out how to monetize social media.

Jules Pieri
Founder of Daily Grommet


January 4, 2009 06:17 AM

I know this guy who's got a Change agenda that we might be able to help advance.
Let's do it.
Next problem?

Nicole Chen

January 5, 2009 12:52 AM

What I like about the term, transformation, is that it alludes to change that can come from building upon positive elements of what already exists. Invention doesn't quite do it for me, as that implies being the first to create something. But that something doesn't necessary mean that it's valuable.

On another note, I'd like to advocate for the Design Strategy MBA program at the CCA to add to your list of design schools teaching transformation tools. This is our first year as students, so jury is still out on how successful we'll be, but based on the first semester and the quality of instruction and students, I think we're well on our way to being great design thinkers and leaders.

By the way, a huge aspect of our particular program is the use of social media tools to share insights and knowledge, and keep us connected when we're not at our in-person sessions. Whereas we're still trying to find the best tool, there's no better way for us students to really understand the value of these tools than to actually engage in them in our day-to-day studies, so I'm grateful for that.


January 5, 2009 08:07 AM

Innovation leads to transformation, so innovation is far from dead - it becomes all the more important, particularly in the trying times ahead. What you are talking about in points 1 and 2 above is more fundamental and more challenging, innovation across systems and organizations. Let's not get waylaid by nomenclature - if we can't get beyond slogans then we may as well throw in the towel on any substantive, transforming efforts that involve design. I agree that basic services, communities and infrastructures need a rethink - the current recession shows us how far we have strayed from responsible and accountable human activity, whether in the financial services market or in the use of natural resources. And "transformation design" has been around for a while:

Jeff Howard

January 7, 2009 01:57 AM

One of the best overviews of transformation design is RED's 2006 call to action from the UK Design Council.

The PDF is available here:

Transformation design as a discipline is being pioneered in the UK by Hilary Cottam from the Design Council and now at Participle, and to an extent by IDEO in the US. The Mayo Clinic's SPARC initiative is a great example of the power of transformation design.

Chris Flanagan

January 7, 2009 06:07 PM

After reading through these many and varied points of view on the matter of innovation versus transformation, I can't help but be reminded of a great quote from Elting E. Morison's 1966 book Of Men, Machines and Modern Time:

"No intellectual heroism or psychic leap will take you from the development of the wheel immediately to the internal-combustion engine and the automobile."

That's transformation and it shouldn't be confused with product, service or experience innovation. (Which we still need btw.)

That said, I'll also add that if we are going to make progress on the big issues of our time including health care, education, energy independence, public safety, and quality of life we will have to enable collaborative innovation. All of these issues are systems problems that will only be solved with systems solutions. (As an aside, I’ll add that what we really need to do is create safe and manageable platforms to experiment with systems level innovation - but that’s a conversation better suited for another post.)

If you ask me, transformation is at the top of the pyramid. It’s hard, slogging work to get there, it doesn’t happen often, and when it does, it was usually catalyzed by a near-death experience. (One of the best stories I ever heard on this is Irving Wladawsky-Berger of IBM :

So to a certain extent Bruce, I think you’re mixing apples and oranges. Innovation is not dead but perhaps, given the near-death positions of many of our once great institutions, transformation is in our future. Which of course will spur a whole new wave of innovation conversations :)

Chris Flanagan
Director of Research
Business Innovation Factory


January 8, 2009 03:16 AM

Transformation through inspiration.

Motivating new behaviors using inspiration seems like a part of our near future. That's what we're seeing on the positive side.

Though, I have to say, all is not broken. My calling card does represent my philosophy, but even with that bias is it all broken? In need of redesign yes, transformation, evolution, magnification and reformulation (a few more "tions") maybe so, but not broken all together.

We can live a life of abundance, share it and still live sustainably.


January 8, 2009 02:33 PM

I agree that the word "Innovation" is overused, sometimes for purposes where it is not relevant. However, I take issue with Mr. Nussbaum's statement: “Innovation" implies changing what is. "Transformation" implies creating what’s new.

In reality, Innovation is all about creating something new. Transformation is about changing what exists. The compact Oxford English Dictionary seems to agree, as outlined by these definitions:

• noun 1 the action or process of innovating. 2 a new method, idea, product, etc.

• noun a marked change in nature, form, or appearance.

We're all talking about change - from the low risk of incremental change to the Hail Mary of revolutionary change. It is a continuum with subtle gradations. I'd just argue that if we're going to introduce a "new" buzzword, we should be precise in its meaning.

I'll admit to being a bit dogmatic in my critique, but my point is valid.

Andrei Cernasov

January 8, 2009 06:10 PM

It seems that we are replacing apples with oranges in the still life of our economy. While true that digitization evolved the sawing needle of the craftsman to new heights, design is still the shallow end of innovation. At that level design (art and music as well) can enormously enrich our lives while not solving our most pressing problems. We need new sources of energy, we need a stable climate, we need to cure cancer and heart disease, we need water, we need a predictable world. Design will not provide them. Hard, resource intensive, continuous and innovation driven R&D might. Corporations, investment banks, health care facilities, schools, universities and the Congress only manage the inputs and outputs of our common body of knowledge. Its growth depends on people able to bring new and relevant matter to the world, i.e. well supported innovators.

In Webster’s Dictionary Transformation is an act, process, or instance of change in structure, appearance, or character, a conversion, revolution, makeover, alteration, or renovation. Transformation is a one step process; innovation needs to be continuous. And while design may bring a quicker return on investment, ignoring science and technology based deep innovation will prove such gains ephemeral.

Fred Collopy

January 9, 2009 12:46 AM

It is just a little self-serving for me to point out that at least one other management school that is taking design seriously. Please have a look at

Kathie Thomas

January 9, 2009 09:06 PM


I agree that businesses need to take innovation further, but I do not think innovation is dead, nor do I think that transformation is the next change concept. Rather, I think that transformation is one type of innovation that lives at the "radical change" end of the innovation spectrum.

I hope you'll visit my blog at http:/// for more of my insights on the topic and that you'll let me know your thoughts.

Thank you for starting this discussion. I look forward to many more!

Kathie Thomas
Director of Innovation, Fleishman-Hillard

Alex Castellarnau

January 9, 2009 10:28 PM

"Innovation" and "Transformation" work on the WHATs, I'd like to add one component to the equation, "Radical Collaboration" as how to address the HOW. I'm more and more convinced that having a deeper impact relies more on the HOW we design and less on the WHAT we design.

Roy Luebke

January 9, 2009 11:11 PM

As a graduate of the MDM program at the Institute of Design and now practicing as a consultant, I have seen both the power of structured innovation tools, methods and frameworks and the difficulty of getting senior executives engaged in this type of thinking.

Senior business leaders are still overly focused on operational efficiencies and tactical marketing, and are still focused on pushing products on people instead of understanding their customers more deeply and creating new business models, user experiences, etc. that are more relevant to customers on a human level.

I don't like the term "transformation" because it sounds too much like six sigma lingo. Business leaders need to get their organizations more attuned to the user experience and help their customers achieve emotional, physical, cognitive, and social/cultural satisfaction. Then they will sell more stuff.

S. Gorden

January 10, 2009 04:42 AM

Thinking about Transformation (as defined by a change in nature or appearance) and applying it to our existing Infrastructure, is not really a new idea-but rather a renewing idea. In general, people know that we need to reevaluate the condition that we find ourselves in as a planet and societies with socio-economic divides ever widening (rich and poor) 125 years after the Industrial Revolution. I think any person with common sense will recognize that more intentional planning and implementation we can turn many of these looming issues around, albeit with alot of work, trial and error. Design is a plausible vehicle to imagining that more simplified world we all really desire.


January 10, 2009 07:32 AM

While the author of this post and the readers have posted comments arguing the difference between Innovation and Transformation the true Innovators are busy Innovating rather than throwing words around or coining new catch phrases. 'Thinking' about 2 words is a sorry way to spend time.

Doers do, writers write(including myself).


January 10, 2009 07:52 AM

Bruce thanks for killing the word Innovation and Reinventing Transformation.
I have decided to coin my own phrase that has a li'l more oomph:Revolution!

And if you're inclined to be a li'l more dramatic lets go with Rebirth; sounds so karmic and pseudo intellectual don't you think?

Margaret Karakas

January 10, 2009 04:36 PM

As a practicing Licensed Interior Designer in south Florida, I have been selling the concept of "transformation" to my clients for almost 20+ years. I like to think of what I do for design, both inside and outside of the home, is life transforming to their living environment. In other words, enhancement as to the quality of life my clients can emotionally, intrinsically and physically enjoy in their newly redesigned transformed spaces.

Big government, financial institutions or otherwise and major industries such as the big 3 auto manufacturers fail to look at the emotional connection each and everyone of us as human beings need to relate to common everyday life and it's powerful impact the things they produce can effect. You can't get any more basic than that, can you?


January 12, 2009 07:37 PM

Great topic. Having been involved as upper management in companies that cannot let go of the past (business models, archaic products, and outdated concepts of how 'things are done') I think what we really need is a new job title: Chief Destroyer. They would critically look at where a company stands and what the company offers to the market and then destroy product lines and business models that are a drag on innovation.

A company's 'History' is usually the greatest enemy of innovation.

Anne Clement

January 13, 2009 06:34 PM

Today Innovation is the cornerstone of every business. Every time you turn a corner, a business is talking about its latest innovations. But is it making a difference? Transformation is about DNA of the best leadership. But do leaders today have the right DNA to transform their companies and pick the best from their businesses? I am not sure.

J. Frederico Abo-gaux

January 14, 2009 09:31 PM

It is design what we need to transform our failing institutions and consequently society. As the movie "The Matrix" depicts well... we must re-write the code! The theory that encompasses all this already exists and comes from Economics, more specifically Game Theory and it is named MECHANISM DESIGN.. It is so powerfull that its creator (Leonid Hurwicz) and main contributors won the Nobel Prize for Economics last year! (

Joao Frederico Abo-gaux, Economist, MBA
Founder of We-re Human, Strategic Design, Miami, FL.

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