Organizational transformations are among the most difficult undertakings that leaders face. Whether the organization is a nation or a department, history is replete with false starts, ugly outcomes, unintended consequences, and abandoned efforts.

There are, of course, many reasons why these efforts are so intractable. Probably the most striking is that they are not "projects" in the traditional sense. They resemble more an organic adaptation. That is, less an activity that can be centrally planned, prioritized, scheduled, and controlled, and more like an activity in which one carefully observes various stimulus-response behaviors in order to better grasp the underlying, often hidden, survival mechanism that ultimately drives the decisions that the organism makes to persist and succeed in its chosen competitive landscape, and then to apply this knowledge to influence the organism to evolve in the desired way.

Moreover, just focusing on changing behaviors is doomed if those behavior changes are at odds with this underlying survival mechanism. As we have seen all too often, the organism may appear to comply for some period of time---constrained as is often the case by focused, determined external forces and coercion (i.e., management), or sometimes inadvertently compliant through its own internal lapses which periodically distract every organism. But, soon, through attrition and the daily grinding away at these artificial fetters by the organism's unrelenting survival mechanism, it breaks free. Further, the organism's own survival reflexes react in unpredictable ways to these crude assaults resulting in the expensive, time-consuming, and ultimately unsatisfactory outcomes of these behavior-based transformations that we now come to expect.

A more successful perspective lies in recognizing that these transformations are an act of war.

A war, not of territory, or of behaviors, but a war of values.

In other words, organizational transformations (regardless of how they may be spun) essentially seek to replace the current set of values with a different set of values. Since the values of an organization essentially define its foundational principles---mission, purpose, and meaning---transformations, if they are to succeed, must necessarily attack this survival mechanism directly by focusing explicitly on the underlying values that shape its actions.

It should be pointed out that the issues at stake are typically not as clear cut as simply replacing one set of values with another completely new set. What is often found is that the desired set of values are not really new, but can be found among the ideas that the current organization deems important, it is rather more a question of priority, emphasis, and interpretation. Regardless, the fight is over whose values and interpretations will prevail as the governing principles for the organization.

This declaration of war concept is vital because it unambiguously communicates to the organization the existential import of the undertaking. If an organization fools itself into thinking that all that is needed is a bit of behavior modification, then disaster lies this way. Expectations, risk-reward assessments, investment decisions, priorities, are all quite different depending upon which path you choose.

Consequently it is vital to clearly characterize transformations as significant "bet the organization" or "burning platform" style decisions.

Behaviors are the only reliable windows into values---what you stand for is most clearly revealed by the decisions you make and the actions you take. Accordingly, an organization that can quickly read the signs in its behavior, identify the misalignment in values driving that behavior, and then respond with leadership actions focused on restoring the proper values are on the path towards long-term, sustainable success. On the other hand, simply treating the behavior itself as the problem and merely correcting the behavior without addressing the underlying value system is a recipe for disaster and low morale.