The Practice of Transformation

First, some background to the epiphany (an experience of sudden and striking realization).  Twenty-odd years ago I joined Dun and Bradstreet’s advanced services division as Director of Program Management.  I was not the only one unfamiliar with what that job might be.  When my business cards came, they identified me as Director of Program Manglement.

There is no better way in such a situation than Steve Jobs’ approach: “When you don’t know where to start, start somewhere.”  I did what needed doing for a complex new service that was being developed in New York and tested and rolled out in country-specific variants all across Europe, then used that experience to establish a methodical software development process.

The first step in the process is a Vision Statement.  Its purpose is to imagine and articulate “how great it will be when.”  Because our mission was to develop and deploy “advanced services”, we had to imagine new ways our customers could do their work to get better results.

Vision Statements imagined people using radically new software to do business in new ways with far more effective results.  We illustrated how pieces of the software might look and got feedback from innovative customers to identify the best ideas.

Then came the Scope Statement.  That’s where, based on our image of “how great it will be when,” we defined what the first software version would and would not do.  Scope transformed an ultimate vision into something we could actually do.  That became the basis for the Project Plan.

So, the Vision Statement harnesses intuition: the Scope Statement employs the intellect.  The Vision Statement is expansive: the Scope Statement is restrictive — that’s where you discipline yourself to say, “No, we don’t have to do that piece yet.”

By the time I took over as General Manager of that division then went on to establish D&B’s global “Technology Strategy, Architecture and Frameworks” I’d realized the same method of harnessing intuition disciplined by intellect was applicable to transformational business strategy.

No transformation is possible if you have no vision of “how great it will be.”  At best you will find only quicker, cheaper ways of doing the same things you always did.

Now the epiphany:  a couple of days ago, I realized Tibetan Buddhism is built on the same foundation.

In a long traditional set of rituals I practice every morning, supplemented by study and reflection later in the day, I imagine becoming deities that flawlessly manifest behavior I want to perfect.  The only difference from business Visions is instead of imagining freedom from business limitations, I imagine freedom from emotional and conceptual habits.

In the same way as Vision Statements include illustrative stories, Tibetan Buddhist texts include tales about exemplary beings.

But unlike the process for product and business transformation, Tibetan Buddhism requires no Scope Statement.  New products and services or business strategies take substantial time and investment which makes rigorous scope management of a stepwise transition essential.

Tibetan Buddhist practice is more like bug-fixing.  All features exist, they’re just buggy.  Because they’re so buggy, it’s hard to imagine all the defects gone, so we visualize deities that reveal in purified form what we cannot see even though it is already there.

How to proceed when there are so many bugs?  The proven method in the business world is “continuous improvement.”  One of its early leaders, W. Edwards Deming, was instrumental in Japan’s mastery of manufacturing.  They summarize his teaching that errors are opportunities for learning to generate improvements as “every defect a treasure”.

Continuous improvement is an unremitting process of noticing defects, rigorously identifying their root causes, and incrementally eliminating those factors.

Tibetan Buddhism is a continuous improvement practice.  My teacher says two to four hours of formal practice every day is necessary for transformation.  Some change seems to be taking place since I upped my own practice to two hours.  But it’s the same as in business, my aim must be to stay alert throughout the day, notice every defect, identify why it happened, and steadfastly uproot its cause.

I was lucky in my business life to get transformative teachings at Harvard Business School and elsewhere.  I am lucky now to get transformative Tibetan Buddhist teachings.  And I’m blessed above all by my parents’ teaching, “I don’t know, let’s work to find out.”

Epiphanies result, if at all, from long hard work whose aim may not even seem to be discovery.  They are surprising because arriving at the realization is unexpected.  The realization itself, however, is immediately recognized to be obvious truth.

It’s not surprising that both transformational Tibetan Buddhism and transformational business strategy use envisioning integrated with continuous improvement.  My surprised feeling was because I hadn’t noticed that before.  It’s lucky that what I learned in business was such good preparation for what I’m doing now.