Reformation and transformation (Ackoff 2003, 2010)

In his system of system concepts, Russell Ackoff made the distinction between reformation and transformation in many of his lectures. Here are two written sources.

From Redesigining Society (2003) …

Systemic Transformation

A system is transformed, as contrasted with reformed, when its structure or functions are changed fundamentally. Such changes are discontinuous and qualitative, quantum leaps. For example, Ghandi led the transformation of India from a colonial state to an independent democracy. In contrast, Roosevelt reformed the United State; of the changes he brought in were wihtin the existing systems of government.

Reform maintains the existing system but modifies its behavior; it manipulates the system’s efficiency with respect to the same objectives as it had previously. Transformation involves changes of ends as well as means. Reform is preoccupoed with doing things right, even the wrong things. Transformation is concerned with doing the right things, as well as doing them right. Put another way: when a system is reformed, the way it is conceptualized, though of — for example, as an organism — is not changed. When it is transformed, the way it is conceptualized is changed — for example, from the organism into a social system. [p. 163]

In a society conceptualized as an organism, as most are (see Chapter 7), the government is not thought of as an instrument of its parts. “Ask not what the government can do for you, but what you can do for the government.” The parts are though of as instruments of the whole. “Theirs is not to question why; theirs is just to do or die.” In contrast, when a society is conceptualized as a social system, service to its parts, its stakeholders, is its principal function. Those who govern and lead are take to be public servants in fact as well as in word. In a reformed society, the leader is one who empower the followers. In a transformed society, the leader is one who is empowered by the followers. [pp. 163-164]

From Differences That Make a Difference (2010) …


To reform a system is to change its behavior without changing its structure or its functions. It continues to do the kinds of things it has always done but does some of them differently. To transform a system is to change its structure and the way it functions. The changes it produces are radical (go to the roots of the system) or even revolutionary.

Reformations and transformations are both intended to improve performance of that which has been modified.

Transformations of any type of social group require leadership because they involve a risk. Therefore, they also require a willingness on the part of followers to make short-run sacrifices in order to make longer-term gains. The willingness to make such sacrifices requires a vision supplied by the leader of the end-point of the transformation. It must be an inspiring vision and one that is accompanied by a formulation of a strategy for making progress toward its realization.

A reformation does not require a leader; managers can usually make it happen. Inspiration is seldom required. A tactical plan is usually sufficient to bring it about; a strategy is not necessary. A manager who can exercise authority can frequently bring a reformation about with subordinates who do not necessarily follow voluntarily (as is required in a transformation). Transformations may be led by leaders who have absolutely no authority over their followers. If the leader of a transformation exercises authority it is authority voluntarily given to him/her by his/her followers.

The change of an autocratic monarchy or dictatorship to a democracy is a transformation. The change of a democracy from conservative to liberal is a reformation. The change of Christianity from Catholicism to Protestantism was also a transformation but was called a Reformation. The change from Methodism to Baptism was a reformation. The Industrial Revolution transformed societies. Changes in a nation’s constitution, in contrast to additions, usually transform the nation. Additions to a constitution may or may not do so. Perestroika and glasnost were transforming in the Soviet Union but they have been diluted (reformed) since.

For finer points on the distinction between a biological conception and a social systems perspective, there’s a digest at “System types as purposeful, and displaying choice” that refers to some articles by Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi.


Ackoff, Russell L., and Sheldon Rovin. 2003. Redesigning Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ackoff, Russell Lincoln. 2010. Differences That Make a Difference: An Annotated Glossary of Distinctions Important in Management. Triarchy Press Limited.


#reformation, #systems-thinking, #transformation