Transactional, Transitional, and Transformational Change

“We have the means and the capacity to deal with our problems, if only we can find the political will.”
–Kofi Annan

Recently I wrote an entry “Change” and the attributes of leadership that lead to successful change in the public sector.  Subsequent to that post I read a series of four interesting articles (see endnote) that underlie the need for change in human spaceflight, and call into question in my mind the types of change needed to successfully achieve the outcomes desired.  What are the types of change, and how are they different?

A very simple way to think about approaches to implementing change can be obtained through answering a series of straight-forward questions:

  1. How complex is this change in terms of the number, breadth, depth, and types of interaction between the pieces and actions it contains (i.e., is it simple or complex)?
  2. For this change, are there obvious and clear solutions and precedents (i.e., is it relatively predictable)?

From these two questions, we end up with four possible combinations of answers that lead to three outcomes relative to change: transactional, transitional, and transformational change.

Transactional Change. Simple and predictable outcomes need transactional change.  To lead this kind of change, the level of investment needed by the leadership and organizations involved is fairly low.  Typically, little to no modification is needed to the organizational structure, the existing system of policies and procedures, and the individual skills and abilities needed to implement the change.  Much as in a monetary transaction, a transactional change does not alter the fundamental form, fit or function of the components.

Using the above model, the Constellation Program built around Ares-I, Ares-V, Orion, and Altair is a transactional approach to implementing the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration.  It is rooted in elements familiar to any student of Apollo (Orion has been called “Apollo on steroids”) and makes use of existing Shuttle technology, infrastructure, and workforce.  Constellation represents a realistic approach that integrates engineering, budgetary, workforce, and (at least at the time) political concerns into a workable solution involving NASA and its traditional contractors.

Constellation sought to achieve results in a transactional change environment (one created by NASA, OMB, Congress, and the White House).  However, for a number of years, some have questioned the Constellation approach on one or more grounds:

  1. a more sound engineering approach – “Other methods are safer and more reliable”
  2. a cheaper budgetary approach – “Constellation is unaffordable”, or
  3. an alternate workforce approach – “Let the private sector provide access to low Earth orbit”

The questions gained traction with the change in administrations and last year’s review by the Augustine Committee, which examined the Constellation Program (which it calls the “Program of Record”) and several other alternative engineering approaches.  It also offered its own solution that integrates engineering, budgetary, and workforce concerns into a plan called “Flexible Path.”  (“Flexible Path” does not incorporate a political view.)  More to the point of this section, Flexible Path and other alternatives need more than a transactional type of change.  Here, we need to consider the other types of change.

Transitional Change. Simple yet unpredictable, or complex yet predictable outcomes need transitional change.  To lead this kind of change, the level of leadership and organizational investment needed is higher than that for transactional change.  For the change to be successful, some modifications are needed to the organizational structure, the existing systems of policies and procedures, and the individual skills and abilities needed to implement the change.  Furthermore, this type of change touches upon and raises an examination and refinement of mission, strategy, and organizational culture.

As the name implies, the organization undergoes a transition from one state to another, related state.    Depending on the implementation details, “Flexible Path” is a transitional type of change; thus, to be successful, it requires a greater amount of leadership and organizational investment than that for a transactional change, involving key stakeholders (which in the case of human spaceflight are NASA, the White House, Congress, OMB, and private industry).

“Flexible Path” does not exhaust the spectrum of possibilities for human spaceflight.  To introduce some of the grander proposals tossed around for years  in the space community, we need to address the final type of change.

Transformational Change. Complex and unpredictable outcomes need transformational change. To lead this kind of change, the level of leadership and organizational investment needed is the highest of all types considered so far.  For this change to be successful, potentially sweeping and radical modifications are needed to the organizational structure and the existing systems of policies and procedures.  New skill, abilities, and ways of thinking are required to implement the change.  Furthermore, this type of change requires a fundamental revision of one or more of mission, strategy, and organizational culture.

What some in the space community seek for human spaceflight requires a transformational change; achieving the solution requires complex ideas integrated in a complex environment.  Additionally, as much as I am tempted to point to history as examples for human spaceflight (discovery of the new world, development of the railroad system), my deepest feeling is that extending human presence beyond low Earth orbit permanently to new destinations could result in an outcome we cannot predict.

By no means should my assertion of complexity and unpredictability lead to avoiding this type of change.  It simply requires a greater investment and will on the part of engineering, budgets, workforce, and political leaders to make it happen.  To fail in making the right level of leadership and organizational investment by all parties will jeopardize the success of the change being sought.

Do we have what it takes technologically, fiscally, skill-wise, and politically to lead a transitional change in human spaceflight? A transformational one?


Endnote.  Here are the articles from December 2009 that inspired this examination:

The first was a piece from ScienceInsider that asserts that President Obama backs a new launcher and a bigger NASA budget, supposedly stemming from a face-to-face meeting between the President and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden:

The second piece on SpaceFlightNow attempts to restore reason by asserting that President Obama has not yet made a decision on the fate of NASA’s Constellation program:

The third piece on The Once and Future Moon points out that many are missing the point, and that a renewed sense of purpose is needed:

The fourth piece is an Op-Ed in the Houston Chronicle that asserts NASA is in need of a major overhaul and that radical change is necessary for the Agency to thrive:

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Transactional, Transitional, and Transformational Change

5 thoughts on “Transactional, Transitional, and Transformational Change

  1. ” A return to the Moon to develop and utilize its material and energy resources and create new space faring capability may not be “exciting” but it certainly is productive and useful. It allows us to build an extensible, maintainable, expandable, affordable transportation system, serving many purposes, thereby moving beyond the existing spaceflight paradigm: Design, Launch, Use, Discard (and Repeat.)”

    I found this in the third piece you mentioned in the article and it really spoke to me. I am in Orlando and close to some of what goes on in Titusville. The whole space program seems to be in such transition right now…wait that’s not it is it? Our space program is going through a transfomation right? I wish you luck and open communication. We need this to work.

    This is a great blog and I thank you for your dedication to your work.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Shane, and kind words. Indeed, if we are to move beyond the transactional paradigm of “design, launch, use, discard (and repeat)”, we must be prepared to embrace transitional change at the least, and in the grandest scheme transformational change. Do we have what it takes to make either change successful? Not with business as usual.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your article — identifying the type of change desired is important. It drives the approach, and gives us the ability to better understand the outcome. It’s foundational to managing expectations. Thank you for the reminder.

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