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An Ameba, not a Butterfly: Get the Transformation Metaphor Right


Digital transformation is everywhere you look.  There are many articles in business journals and countless posts in business-focused social media, all highlighting the necessity of this transformation, lest companies be disrupted into oblivion.  With such high stakes one would think there would be a greater success rate.

But now, not surprisingly, we are seeing accounts of how it’s not working and the consensus failure rate of 84% is eerily similar to the oft-cited 85% failure rate we’ve been hearing for years for other large-scale change integration initiatives.  We are also now starting to hear a belated appreciation for the importance of the “culture component” in order to transform an organization.  However, the culture piece rarely moves beyond this acknowledgement of its importance. Little constructive action is ever taken to shape culture and move the needle on those failure percentages. 

Foundational narratives are one of the most effective levers in shaping organizational culture.  And metaphor is a powerful component of these narratives, helping people in organizations make sense of the environment. 

When it comes to transformation, the butterfly has long been the exemplar of such fundamental change. Whether explicitly or implicitly, and whether they are aware of it or not, it is the butterfly metaphor that has shaped the narrative in organizations attempting to transform. 

The ordinary caterpillar enters the cocoon undergoes a complete metamorphosis and emerges after a time, a completely new and different creature, the spectacular butterfly. When it comes to organizations there are many problems with this butterfly metaphor for transformation. 

 It views the process as,

  • A one-time event with a finite beginning and end – caterpillars become butterflies and then stay butterflies

  • Known and predictable, according to a plan or blueprint – everyone knows what will happen and what the butterfly will look like.

  • Linear– enter the cocoon – metamorphosis – emerge – finished. 

  • Discontinuous - there is little to connect the caterpillar and the butterfly except for the “black box” of the cocoon

  • Done to the subject, not by it – the caterpillar doesn’t change itself, it is changed by the process.

Each of these elements is problematic when transforming organizations. Transformational change is ongoing and never ends.  It is rife with uncertainty. Plans and blueprints rarely survive Step One, before requiring new plans. It is not linear - there is often a “one-step forward, two-steps back, element to successful change.  It begins where the organization currently is, there is no black box in organizations. Finally, the organization must change itself from within, not “be changed” from without.  Given this prevailing Butterfly metaphor, it is no wonder that when organizations are told they must digitally transform, the result is a lot of confused caterpillars.

A better metaphor for transformation is the Ameba.  It is continuously changing its shape, sending out pseudopods in different directions at the same time, testing its environment, then reacting appropriately, moving in the most promising direction and dividing when necessary.  It is governed by a nucleus that does not direct specific activity, but rather, regulates the internal environment in order to allow the organism to act itself.

Adopting the lessons of the Ameba metaphor would go a long way to shaping cultures ready to transform.

Written by Thomas Rottenberger, Founder at Artisanal Leadership



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