Change: evolution or revolution?

Mao Tse-tung is quoted as saying “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. In business, the political power wielded in change is manifested most clearly in revolutionary change.

In revolutionary change, one person orchestrates change, from the top. The change is often about cutting costs or regaining control over an organisation that has lost its way by taking inappropriate risks, or perhaps by developing a myopic inability to look externally and becoming inwardly driven.

Revolutionary change tends to continue to be driven by one individual surrounded by a small group of trusted ‘lieutenants’. The change process itself becomes reliant on the individual.

In evolutionary change, a leader still orchestrates the change. However, the leader tends to empower people all through the organisation to take on the change. The leader provides the resources, training and authority for people to engage in the change and become leaders of the change in their own right.

Which method of change is right? Whilst most people have an intuitive preference for evolutionary change, it is not always appropriate.

If an organisation has a ‘burning platform’, then a revolutionary approach is often the only method applicable. Much of the oil industry in the mid- to late-nineties was forced to slash costs to survive as margins declined sharply due to increases in supply from previously unavailable sources behind the Iron Curtain.

Many companies that eschewed revolutionary change or that were not quick enough in coping with the change, sold or closed their assets down in all geographical areas of the world.

How is a choice made between adopting a revolutionary approach and an evolutionary approach?

For the individual, the choice is only about remaining true to yourself. If it is not in your nature to be fast-moving, decisive and have a thick skin and few regrets, then the revolutionary approach is not for you. Equally, if it is not in your nature to empower people and delegate authority as well as providing strong leadership on what needs to be done, then the evolutionary approach is not for you.

For organisations, the choice of revolutionary or evolutionary change is generally thrust upon them by powerful internal or external factors.

A powerful internal factor encountered on a surprisingly frequent basis is the dysfunctional management team. The dysfunctional aspects are characterised by an inability to make a decision, lack of accountability, poor morale amongst the direct reports, slow progress towards goals, and a constant reprioritisation of activities.

Dysfunctional organisations mostly require revolutionary change. Whether the dysfunction comes from inability to change, incompetence, inability to build relationships, or inability to communicate, the place to start is usually a clean out of the management team. Maintaining the same team and bringing in evolutionary change usually results in little or no change at all.

Coping with powerful external shocks, such as a swift and large change in the economy, may require revolutionary change. Changes may be required to cost structures or cash flow that can only be executed in a timely fashion through unilateral action. Revolutionary change does not mean an absence of communication. What it does mean is that the communication is about the inevitability of the precise change, not whether change will happen or not.

Whilst revolutionary change is at times necessary, it is not always inevitable. Organisations that have been able to build a culture of evolutionary change, however, can often cope with external shocks without the need for revolutionary change.

These organisations are characterised by a workforce that has the competency, tools, and – most importantly, authority – necessary to carry out their tasks. People are trained and the effectiveness of the training is measured. They have flat organisational structures and control people’s actions through data and a transparent performance management system rather than position.

Very visible leading and lagging performance indicators that measure financial, customer, internal process, and the learning and growth characteristics of the organisation have evolved.

Change is seen as a positive. Competitors are seen as a spur to innovation. Markets for one product are cannibalised by new ones. Customer complaints are treated as an opportunity to learn and change processes to improve efficiency and effectiveness.

Consultants’ tools and models are just tools and models, the means to an end, not the end themselves. Vision, mission, and values are real, not just plaques on a wall. Goals, strategies, and tactics are determined and executed.

Risks are determined and managed consistent with the organisation’s vision, goals, and values. Governance is something in which pride is taken, not a chore. Projects are managed and deadlines are adhered to.

In short, the organisations are well-led and well-managed.

Whilst revolutionary change is often required in an organisation, it can be a sign of poor management that has been unable to instil a culture of evolutionary change in the first place.

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