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Organisational Change Is Always Evolutionary

evoluA previous blog,  “The Age of the Individual”, discussed the idea that the ‘revolution’ before us is one in which the individual is reclaiming control from institutions.  Although true, this is somewhat simplistic. Let’s call it poetic licence. Undoubtedly, these changes will ‘revolutionise’ many aspects of our lives, but the process itself, is, has and will continue to be, an ‘evolutionary’ one.  Evolution seems to be a universal principle.

This period of organisational evolution is already serving up institutions in every sector that are adapting to the complexity (i.e. dealing with more of it) and dynamism (i.e. the rate and speed of that change) in the world where they exist.  Like new branches on an evolutionary tree, organisations are showing very different characteristics as they adapt to different terrains and climates.

To survive and thrive, organisations are becoming more agile, fluid, and less structured with a real blurring of previously well-defined boundaries.  Some organisations look so different in the new world it is important to emphasise that this is ‘evolutionary’.  So what does this imply?

Firstly, evolution means that what went before was not wrong or bad, just appropriate to that previous environment.  A chimp isn’t wrong or bad, just not homo sapiens.  After all, an opposable thumb only gets you so far. We shouldn’t be critical of the past, just accept that it was a different time.  We might reminisce fondly about how much easier it was back then, being a chimp, but really we don’t wish we had primates running our businesses.

Secondly, with evolution, we do not forget the lessons of our previous existence if they are still useful to us.  For example, some organisations like Morning Star (a Californian tomato producer built on a philosophy of self-management),  Giffgaff (a sim-only mobile network operator run by members), Orpheus orchestra (fantastic chamber music from New York City but conductor-less since 1972), have adapted by being textbook ‘leaderless’ organisations.  However, this has not meant they have forgotten the lessons of the skills of great leadership. They have simply decided they are skills required by everyone, not just a few who we pay vast and disproportionate wages to for supposedly having them.

A ‘leaderless’ organisation does not forget the benefits of the things leaders may have brought that may still be important: vision, inspiration, facilitation, motivation, implementation, innovation etc. It uses them appropriately in the new model where ‘Everyone’s a Leader!’

It seems remarkable, although maybe predictable in an evolutionary sense, that some of these leaps have not been picked up by many more organisations.  After all, some of these examples of leaderless organisations have been around for many years and yet we still bang on about the need for great leaders and a whole industry exists to tell leaders what they must or must not do.  There is growing research and evidence for the real lack of a difference leaders make.  The world has shifted and new models are needed.

Thirdly, with evolution, usually the incumbent sticks around, (how else could we have sold teabags in the 1970s?), while the new species find their place.  The emergence of new models of organisation doesn’t mean those originally there just disappear.  Some more traditional organisations are very durable.  However, they would do well to learn the ways of the new world and they will still need to adapt or they will be vulnerable.

Finally, evolutionary processes take time either to establish a niche or to compete with, or indeed replace, the incumbent. Evolution tends to work in small increments. Notice I did not use the word slowly.  Incremental does not mean slow. We will wake up one day and notice we are in a very different world and wonder how on earth that happened!


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