Change and Trasnformation
Change & Transformation: Chrono Time & Kairos Events
Derek R. Olson, PhD
This article is the first in a series of six looking into the difference between change and transformation in organizations, for individuals, and applying this insight to developmental aims. The 2nd and 3rd articles will do a deeper dive on change (Chrono) and transformation (Kairos) with the 4th and 5th articles see what these models look like in organizations and individuals. The final article will focus on the application of these insights. PDF versions of each article can be found at The Ubuntu Group, Change and Transformation (insert link). This series was written by Dr. Derek Olson, the Managing Partner of Global Consulting & Training at The Ubuntu Group.
- We live in an era that is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and thus is full of change and transformation
- To respond to this context, we have a fundamental need for both clearer and deeper understanding of the difference between change and transformation
- Change is defined by the Greek term Chronos in that both are always happening, it is either positive or negative, our potential control over change can be high, specific preparations can be taken, there will be little or no pain and lost, and everyone within the system is an agent of change
- Transformation is defined by the Greek term Kairos in that both rarely happen and only does so for a short time, there is both positive and negative simultaneously, little control is possible over what is happening, it cannot be predicted well and thus preparations are broad, pain and loss will be heavy, and the transformational agents are those with formal or informal authority.
Raise your hand if you’ve heard one of these before: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” - Mahatma Gandhi or “Everyone things of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” - Leo Tolstoy. Or how about these? “The wings of transformation are born of patience and struggle.” - Janet S. Dickens or “The great solution to all human problems is individual inner transformation.” - Vernon Howard. My guess is that at some time our life we’ve seen these or similar quotes and have resonated with them both for where we’ve been and in our hope for the future. But how much do we know about change? What about transformation? And specifically, what do we understand about the difference between change and transformation (C&T)? Importantly C&T is related to the notion of time but cannot be distinguished solely with the English language. Before detailing the difference between the types of time that is change and the events that are transformational let us step back and make the argument of relevancy.
VUCA and the Need for Nuance
The topic of C&T is one that is prolific in almost every realm of our personal and professional lives. Professionally these themes are hot topics in both the practitioner and academic spheres. Ever year the annals of academic journals include dozens of freshly published studies, newly formed models, and updated theories focused on change and transformation. Similarly, there are just as many new books and practioner-focused articles and tools developed and marketed toward organizations and individuals. Indeed, the proliferation of these two conjoined topics over the past three decades comes from a very real need to respond to the post-Cold War order that was all of a sudden a lot less stable. Simultaneously, due to technology, the way people interact, work, and recreate also became much more explosive and thus unpredictable. This new era has often been experienced as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous; simply known as the VUCA age.
The response to an environment experienced as VUCA seems simple: get good at being flexible, adaptable, perceptive, and responsive. In short, get good at changing and transforming. That is both true but also too simple. Here’s the problem: the necessity of every individual and organization to response to the current ecosystem created a popularity of the topic that has led down many paths that intertwin, intermingle, and intermix and that ultimately has brought puzzlement, bewilderment, and disorientation what exactly is “change” and/or “transformation.” Today there is a dilution, confusion, and often a flat-out inability to understand that there is a difference between C&T. How do you respond to dilution and confusion? With the identification of distinctions, nuances, and peculiarities. At The Ubuntu Group we see change and transformation as related to but also exceptionally distinct from the other: change is Chrono time and transformation are Kairos events.
For all the wonderful things about the English language it cannot do it all. Great understanding may be gained at taking contemporary English words and finding nuance in looking to other, current or ancient, languages. An example of this is the English word time that, in other languages, has multiple words that expresses nuances peculiarities, gradients, and idiosyncrasies that our single word does not. For instance, in ancient Greek there is a clear distinction between two types of time: Chrono and Kairos. When understood this distinction becomes directly instructive in the discussion of the difference between C&T.
Change = Chronos Time
The Greek word Chronos is what many of us in the West would consider “normal” time that we typically experience (Strong’s 5550). It’s linear and omni-directional, inevitable and inescapable, and can be measured in standard terms that everyone understands: seconds, days, years, but also the number of Zoom calls you’ve been on in a particular day or the times you get up for to refresh your cup of coffee. Chronos looks like a simple, straightforward timeline:
Chronos time keeps on keep’n on no matter what. So does change: the weather changes, our environment changes, our bodies change. Chronos and change are both always happening whether we like it or not. In a way, nothing can be done about it, but, thankfully, in an equally important way, we have every opportunity to work within this inescapable progression. This is entropy, the Second Law of Thermal Dynamics, in that disorder always increases in a closed system but can remain steady if energy is introduced into the same system from another. That is to say in Chronos change we can either be ruled by the change or accept that it is happening and work with it to our benefit.
Related to our interaction with Chronos change is that is not necessarily bad. Yes, it can devolve into a state of disorder, but that’s not inevitable. Chronos change can be quite good and beneficial to us if it is attended to. The best organizations and the healthiest individuals accept that change is inevitable and are resolute in steering the direction. The prospect of control is high for those are willing to put the work in. Chronos change is also easily seen both in advance and thus can be prepared for. Importantly, when managed well, Chronos change requires little to no pain or loss. Lastly, in this type of transition, we all have a part to play from the individual to all organizational levels. Other common terms for Chronos change are flexibility or adaptability, alteration or modification and adjustment or amendment.
Transformation = Kairos Moments
If Change is the concept of Chronos then transformation is the notion of Kairos. The textbook definition of Kairos is “a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action; the opportune and decisive moment” (Merriam-Webster). But, as usual, when looking at its roots in ancient Greek we find much more. It is the type of time when things are brought to a crisis, when things have come to a head, the appointed time for a purpose, the suitable time or right moment to take full advantage of (Strong’s 2540). Importantly, a facet of this form of time is that it is fixed, a definite period, a season, or a granted short period of time. Often the imagery of Kairos is that of a piece of ripe fruit still on the tree or vine that can either be picked, enjoyed, and provide nourishment or left to fall to the ground and rot. This is all true for our the deeper understanding of transformation. Kairos transformational moments occur infrequently along the continuum of Chronos change. Where Chronos and change always keeps going in a direction Kairo transformation is a specific moment where something has happened that precipitates the possibility, but not inevitability, of a whole new direction.
Kairo and transformation are unique from change Chronos and change in that it is rare, happens fast, and usually comes out of nowhere. Transformational Kairos instances are crisis points, catastrophes, or watershed moments. But, thankfully, they are just that, they are moments. They are events that not go on forever but instead come and go. Also, Kairos transformation is not either positive or negative but has large doses of both. These moments are times where much is created and must is destroyed. Accordingly, there is significant levels of pain and loss. All feel the harm and agony of such a disaster and, for some, it may feel like the “end of the world.” Most individuals and many groups of an organization will have little control within the overall even. Because of their “out of nowhere” nature these events cannot be specifically predicted in when, how, and where they will specifically happen. Thus, preparation for these occurrences can only be made generally and rarely effective in the initial response. The agents that do have great effect in these times are leaders, both those with formal authority and roles as well as those with informal authority and who take up key roles. Their perspectives, reactions, and insights during Kairos transformational moments are one of the keys to whether the period will be deadly or ultimately create out of the destruction. Other terms for a transformational Kairos era might include crisis, disaster, tragedy, cataclysm, upheaval, turmoil, or mayhem.
To deeply understand the difference between C&T it helps to bring these concepts from the abstract to the concrete. The following examples entail four levels or spaces: natural, individual, organizational, and international.
These dichotomous examples will be elaborated on and detailed in the subsequent four articles on C&T.
In a world that is often defined by its VUCA-ness it is essential to be clear about the differences between times of Chronos change vis-à-vis that of transformational Kairos events. Chronos change is always happening, it is either positive or negative, our control over it can be high, it can be easily be prepared for, there will be little or no pain and loss, and everyone within the system is an agent of change. Alternatively, Kairos transformation rarely happens and only does so for a short time, it is both negative and positive, there is little control over what is happening, it cannot be predicted well and thus preparations are broad, pain and loss will be heavy, and the transformational agents are those with formal or informal authority and roles. To appropriately prepare and respond for both Chronos time and Kairos moments we must be able to discern and define when normal Chronos change is happening and those instants where Kairos transformation is occurring.
The next 2 articles in this series will be focused on deep dives of Chronos change and Kairos transformation with the following 2 taking a look at how these are in organizations and then for individuals. The final will focus on how to take this insight and pursue growth and development in toward depth, breadth, and health.
Dr. Derek Olson is the Managing Partner of Global Consulting & Training at The Ubuntu Group. He holds a PhD in Leadership Studies: Cross-Cultural Organizational and Leadership Development from the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. In addition to his organizational consulting work, he teaches at USD’s School Business on topics of organizational behavior, organizational development, and leading across cultures. Together he and his wife serve others through The Oak Stone Project that seeks to create spaces that create.