The term “transformation” is usually used to mean change that is big and complex, and will take time. Indeed, it’s associated with paradigm shifts, radical change/innovation/alternatives and transitions.

Transformation examples
  • From carbon-based to carbon neutral energy systems. Change in core logic technologically and understanding of socio-ecological relationships.
  • From incarceration (or worse) to marriage equality. Change in core values, social norms and understanding of gays and lesbians.
  • From apartheid to post-apartheid. Change in core values, social norms and political system rules.
  • From war to peace in Northern Ireland. Change in core values and social norms.
  • From centralized to decentralized: Change in power structures and governance mechanisms.
  • From the world is flat to the world is round. Change in ways of thinking about the world.
Three Types of Change

Substantial increased ability to support transformation arises with distinction between different types of change, recognizing that

transformation is a specific type that requires particular tools, strategies, mindsets, and actions.

One type of change is incremental. This is sometimes referred to as working inside the box. It is doing more of the same, within the current rules. It’s what happens when Starbucks opens another store: it’s something that’s been done many times before and there’s a well-known set of activities and steps in doing it. Efficiency is a major concern. A key activity is negotiating within a set of parameters that are quite well known. The repetitiveness allows produces best practices.

A second type of change is reform. This is sometimes referred to as working outside the box. It arises with dissatisfaction of the current rules and structures for doing things, with effectiveness as a major concern. This requires policy reform or organizational restructuring, which produces new reporting mechanisms and relationships, while maintaining the same goals and objectives. A key activity is mediating and discussion to identify new rules. Because of the newness the reform produces, there are not previous comparables and good practice, rather than best practice, is the standard.

Transformation is a third type of change. It is so challenging, it raises the question “is it a box?” This is a question about the basic ways of thinking about issues and understanding about the way things work. This involves redefinition of goals (eg.: from producing energy to producing sustainable energy) which arise from a new understanding about the way things work (eg.: carbon emissions result in climate change) and produce fundamental change in operating logics (eg.: from “mining” of nature, to harmony with nature). This usually involves deep shifts in power structures (eg.: away from carbon extractors). In transformation, a key activity is visioning new possibilities that require radical innovation socially and often technologically, and certainly societally. The key activity is trying to do things in fundamentally new ways – experimenting. This is often at large scale, such as with reorganizing national energy programs. And it often involves rethinking traditional boundaries (such as “national”). Giving this radical novelty, there are continuous cycles of emergent learning.

These three types of change interact. Successful transformational experiments require reform to support destruction (eg.: of carbon miners) as well as of creation (eg.: of sustainable energy producers). Reforms, in turn produce new enabling environments and rules to support incremental change.

How to support this complex transformation process through appropriate tools, strategies and actions, is the heart of the work of the Forum. Our societies are today structured to resist transformation, such as the current financing and assessing processes. We are organized around stories and myths (eg.: the current economic narrative) that require changing. We need to create radical innovation that makes sense not just physical technologies and investment returns, but also social-ecological impacts. And we need to build the new capacity to support all of this.

The distinctions in change have arisen from two sources.  One is rooted in the 1970s-80s work of Chris Argyris and Don Schon at MIT, on learning processes.  They distinguished between single- (incremental) and double- (reform) loop learning, later expanded to include triple-loop (transformation) learning.  Waddell presented these in a 2007 article as types of change, and further modified them to produce the current frame.  Mark Pelling, coming from the natural sciences and resilience, presented a similar taxonomy in 2010 with mitigation-adaptation-transformation.  The SDG Transformations Forum emphasizes the first source because the learning framework opens doorways to strategically developing transformation.

  • Waddell, Steve. 2007. “Realising global change: developing the tools; building the infrastructure.” The Journal of Corporate Citizenship (26):69-85.
  • Waddell, Steve. 2011. Global Action Networks: Creating our future together. Bocconi University on Management. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave-Macmillan.
  • Pelling, Mark. 2010. Adaptation to climate change: from resilience to transformation: Routledge.
Types of Change
Change Type Incremental Reform Transformation
Core Question How can we do more of the same? Are we doing things right? What rules shall we create? What structures and processes do we need? How do I make sense of this? What is the purpose? How do we know what is best?
Purpose To improve performance To understand and change the system and its parts To innovate and create previously unimagined possibilities
Power & Relationships Confirms existing rules. Opens rules to revision. Opens issue to creation of new ways of thinking about power.
Action Logic Project implementation Piloting Experimenting
Archetypical Actions Copying, duplicating, mimicking Changing policy, adjusting, adapting Visioning, experimenting, inventing
Tools Logic Negotiation logic Mediation logic Envisioning logic