I have been asking myself that ques­tion quite a lot during the last couple of years. The next ques­tion coming to my mind is: does it really matter?

In my opinion, it’s not crucial whether you say the one or the other when trying to explain someone on a networ­king event or a family dinner what your job is. “I’m helping compa­nies with their agile tran­si­tion.” will produce about as many Aaahs and Ooohs as “I am co-foun­der of an agile trans­for­ma­tion consul­ting company”. The message is clear: I’m somehow invol­ved in change management.

It obviously does matter when talks with a poten­tial client get to the nitty gritty because both, the client and I, need to know what the job-to-be-done will look like and each of us might have a diffe­rent under­stan­ding of the words trans­for­ma­tion and tran­si­tion.

So, what is the diffe­rence between the two? As I am not a lingu­ist or etymo­lo­gist, this is not to be unders­tood as a scien­ti­fi­cally sound answer or some­thing I would want to write a book about. Howe­ver, in order to ensure that ever­y­body at Netz­werk­kno­ten is talking about the same thing when discus­sing it intern­ally or when getting in contact with a client, I would love for this to be some kind of hand rail.

Are we talking about the process or the resul­ting state?

An agile tran­si­tion can, in my opinion, best be descri­bed as a process that takes you from one state to anot­her. If a company needs to change its busi­ness model because digi­ta­liz­a­tion has made it diffi­cult to keep up with the compe­ti­tion, the efforts of imple­men­ting ever­ything that is necessary will be part of the tran­si­tion. In other words, a tran­si­tion is the descrip­tion of how change is coming about.

Agile trans­for­ma­tion, on the other hand, is the result of the tran­si­tion process. Nokia, for example, has trans­for­med from a rubber boots produ­cer to a mobile phone company. In this case, trans­for­ma­tion is used for the descrip­tion of a condi­tion. One might argue that trans­forming itself is also a process and that is defi­ni­tely true. Howe­ver, using the word trans­for­ma­tion almost auto­ma­ti­cally calls for corre­spon­ding initial- and final states. So, while tran­si­tion might ask the ques­tion how change is imple­men­ted, a trans­for­ma­tion could best be descri­bed by what some­thing has chan­ged into.

Trans­for­ma­tion and tran­si­tion = stra­tegy and tactics

Taking it a step further, one could also say that a trans­for­ma­tion is a stra­te­gic decision while tran­si­tion has a much more tacti­cal or opera­tio­nal charac­ter suppor­ting the stra­te­gic decision made beforehand.

So, where does this leave us in terms of diffe­ren­tia­ting between agile trans­for­ma­tion and agile tran­si­tion? Following the line of argu­men­ta­tion of this text, beco­m­ing an agile company would be a stra­te­gic decision. The result would there­fore be a trans­for­ma­tion from a rigid company to an agile one. The process of getting there is called the agile tran­si­tion which is consis­ting of all the small and big measu­res that will help you achie­ving this goal.

Know where you want to go, not what you want to leave behind!

If you were to ask us, if we could help you with your agile tran­si­tion, we would presume, that you already have an idea of what your company should look like once the tran­si­tion has succee­ded. We would there­fore look at all the steps that should be taken in order to arrive at that goal. If you asked for support with the agile trans­for­ma­tion of your company or field of busi­ness, we would first work on coming up with a target condi­tion that you would like to find yourself in before talking about how to get there. 

This should, by no means, imply that we would first get into an argu­ment with you about whether you (or we, for that matter) are using the correct voca­bu­lary or not. As mentio­ned earlier the diffe­ren­tia­tion between tran­si­tion and trans­for­ma­tion is merely an attempt to point out that there are indeed diverse possi­bi­li­ties of looking at change initiatives. 

At the end of the day, we don’t really care about how to call it. We are up for either of these chal­len­ges and in any case we would first be looking at desi­ra­ble outco­mes in order to then define possi­ble small steps in the right direction.

We are very much looking forward to chat­ting with you about your challenges!