Winds of change: Evolution vs. revolution

Revolution is when you jump to the next generation. Cut-over takes place quickly and on a large scale: the entire entity is transformed. Evolution is when you take incremental steps to the next generation over a longer period. When dealing with change, only pioneering opportunists or endangered laggards should choose the revolution path over evolution. But the best learning we have from successful major changes is to match revolutionary goals with evolutionary action.

Revolution: jumping to the next generation

According to a cadre of influential management thinkers in the 1990s, the “creative destruction” that revolution fosters keeps organizations on their toes. It helps avoid complacency. It creates confusion in the marketplace that quick-acting organizations can take advantage of. Most importantly, revolution encourages fresh thinking and innovation. And innovation is vital in times of rapid change.

Despite its attractions, revolution has serious shortcomings, and executives who demand continuous revolution court disaster. As the speed and scale of change increases, revolution becomes progressively more disruptive. This is because it affects people, processes, values, and culture. While changing people might be relatively easy, changing culture is very difficult, and wholesale disruption is impossible to sustain.

Oracle provided an example of misplaced revolution some years back. Though agile and adaptable in the early years, when it was still relatively small, the company’s rapid growth in the 1980s brought it to the brink of disaster.

Such public embarrassments are unusual, but not rare. Because revolution is short-term focused, it often works like steroids for an athlete. Revolution is bad for your health – and continuous revolution can be terminal.

Evolution: step incrementally to the next generation

Evolution avoids fads and cul-de-sacs because it occurs over time. It reduces risk and upheaval. And it allows companies to assess the options and plan accordingly. Evolution tends to deliver superior performance over the long-term, but it can easily degenerate into bureaucracy or complacency, and stifle innovation. Evolution means stepping from the current to the next generation. The steps are incremental, over a period that may take years.

Like revolution, evolution has plenty of heavyweight support. Perhaps most important, there is growing evidence that evolution delivers superior performance over the long-term.

Evolution does have its downside, however. One problem is a continuing need for backward compatibility with predecessors, particularly products and processes. Gradualism keeps organizations more closely tied to their past, creating an unnecessary burden and stifling innovation.

Revolution or evolution?

To decide whether to adopt revolution or evolution, first decide where you want to get to: which of several next-generation possibilities is the one to go for. Next, decide when to make a move, relative to your competitors, the market demand, and the impact on returns that are still possible from the current offerings.

Where and when are closely related to the business strategy. At the enterprise-entity level, the questions where and when are set out in the business strategy (it also says something about how). At component-entity levels – products and processes, for instance – the where and when questions are subsets of the business strategy. Pioneers move early. Their potential rewards are high, but they risk making a wrong choice. Laggards move late. They risk being unable to catch up. Getting the timing right is a balance.

Revolution makes sense for pioneers that spot an opportunity and are prepared to take a high-risk jump to the next generation to cash in on the potential first-mover rewards. Revolution also makes sense for laggards that have slipped so far behind that they risk losing everything if they take no action. At other times – and that’s most of the time – evolution is the better approach.

Always, revolution should be followed by evolution. Call it punctuated equilibrium, to borrow a term from bio-scientific research. The punctuations equate to revolutionary change, and the equilibrium equates to incremental change.

What really seems to work is revolutionary goals achieved through an evolutionary process. Sounds strange but it enables people to have an idea of where they are headed, while allowing time for executives to socialize and the rest of humankind to internalize the change needed.

Dr. Marianne Broadbent is Group Vice President and Global Head of Research for Gartner’s CIO Executive Programs.

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