Saturday, February 23, 2013

Evolution or Revolution?

It depends - of course. Which is the typical consultant's answer.

First off - I do understand that evolution does not necessarily imply small changes over a long time (though it mostly happens that way).  Species simply die out if they (their genes) do not adapt for better survival chances.  Translated into human society this means that some species (autocratic or oligarchic rulers for example) in some cases simply 'die out' because they did not adapt to society's changing demands (Louis XVI or Muammar Gaddafi are examples).  So, in that sense, revolution is just one way evolution works.

But this is not the point I am trying to make in this post.  I want to look at the different approaches that one can use when trying to make changes in your life or your organization.  Is the big bang better than small steps?  This is really the question I am trying to look at here.

This question has gone around with me for a long time. Politically at first when I was young and full of ideals and read about the French Revolution or Bakunin's biography.  Could the changes achieved by the French Revolution have happened in small steps with the king slowly relinquishing more and more of his powers? 

And once my student days were over and I started working in full-time jobs I realized that this same question crops up almost every time any bigger changes were attempted by myself or anyone else in the organization.

Introducing agile concepts is a case in point. Big Bang changes of the whole organization seem often necessary because everything in the system is connected and you will not be able to change one area without influencing everything else. But mostly this is too much to deal with for the system and the individuals involved.  Resistance to the change will be bigger than for a more evolutionary approach.

The 'evolutionists' love Kanban, because it changes nothing at the start and introduces gradual adaptations primarily in the local system that applies Kanban. Scrum in contrast requires a number of new meetings and roles to be introduced. And even though it is often done by using one or two pilot teams, it often turns out soon enough that the interfaces to non-Scrum teams and middle management are too many and too involved for them to go on without also making changes.

During and immediately following the recent Stoos Connect conference this discussion surfaced again.  Some folks did not like the strong and revolutionary rhetoric that was used in many of the talks.  They felt it was either too much too soon or even alienating to those who may be open to the ideas presented but not fully convinced yet.  Should we strive to abolish management and to increase our numbers so that our Stoosian army gets bigger?  Some non-Stoosians might feel they as managers are being attacked and must defend themselves rather than open-mindedly listen and slowly understand what this is all about.  In the this particular example, I think we have a very frequent pattern, actually:  Talk up a revolution (to make people listen) but implement the change evolutionary.  

Looking at changes in organizations I believe that an evolutionary approach is the preferred way if you do not have at least a substantial amount of management power on your side.  It is very hard to make changes in a big way if the CEO and/or many other managers are not with you. They run the company and they do so on authority of the ownership of that company (sometimes they are the owners themselves).  It just is not a democracy and the employees cannot forcefully take ownership and turn a company into that.  What it means is that you need to convince the powers that be to at least try some of the proposed changes in a protected, local environment and show the effects it has.  If you are right about your ideas, then the positive effects should help convince leadership to adopt them in other places.

Many of you probably know the adoption curve (actually diffusion of information) described by Rogers in the 60s:

This basically describes an evolutionary process where the adoption picks up speed and, after reaching the majority it will hopefully still convince the hesitant ones at the end.

But what if the CEO is the one initiating the change?  Suppose she will announce that the company is now going to be founded on agile principles, development will be done in teams that use Scrum or Kanban and management better start changing their mode of operation from command and control to self-organization with trust in people...  I think the curve will still hold up - maybe somewhat compressed in time due to the big bang start, but I still think that not every person in the organization will adopt to the new way of doing things at the same time.  In the end, you need to be convinced to really adopt to the change, not forced.  And I would hope the CEO who sees the light and wants the changes to happen will also understand that forcing the change is mostly not a good idea.

Which leads me to a final point: evolution to one person might well be revolution to another.  It is a matter of perspective.  How much does the change in question affect you?    How much risk is in it for you?  How quickly do you have to make changes?

Change is very emotional and even though it is helpful to make people understand the need for proposed changes, it is by far not enough to have rational explanations.  How will it make everyone feel?  And how much or how little change can everyone handle?

In other words - it depends!  Revolution or evolution - there is no right or wrong approach.  It must be decided based on the system you are trying to affect, on the people in it, the structure of the system, influences on that system and many more aspects.


  1. What in your opinion does the Semco story ( contribute regarding the choice of evolution or revolution?

    1. Anthony,

      thanks for the hint. Semco is a favorite example of a successful transformation of a company from a command and control oriented organisation to a participatory structure with much self-organization and trust in the employees. I do not know too much more about its story than what is written up in the Wikipedia article you link to. I need to read more about it and probably should read Semler's books....

      I think it fits into the paragraph of the CEO 'seeing the light' and initiating the changes. Seems rather revolutionary by him and certainly from the perspective of most members of the organization. It seems to emphasize the point that in business a revolution can probably be started from the top only. Which seem kind of counter intuitive.