Revolutionary vs. evolutionary organizational change

Organizational change can occur quickly or slowly. I’ve found it useful to classify organizational changes into two types–revolutionary and evolutionary–to call attention to two different, valid ways of changing organizational culture. People less familiar with organizational change have a hard time recognizing the validity of both approaches, particularly the evolutionary type. Many frameworks say “you must have senior leadership buy-in,” and people then think the boss should tell everyone and then we’ll do it.

That type of change–a high-pressure mandate from above–is what I call a revolutionary change. Senior leadership says we must do this. Discussion may be tolerated or allowed, but the improvement is going to take place. It could be a day, a week, or a month, but the change will occur. The change occurs because “the boss says so.”

Contrast that with an evolutionary change. Evolutionary changes occur very slowly. A change agent helps the organization, often person by person, understand the change. People comment and the approach is built collaboratively. People have to buy in to the change. Senior leadership still needs to be on board, but they are less the driver of the change and more a coach or cheerleader.  (See also my presentation, “Riding the Maturity Model Wave,” which addresses how to conduct evolutionary change.) The change occurs in small chunks, almost imperceptibly.

Let’s examine the advantages and disadvantages of revolutionary change vs. evolutionary change.

Aside: Political Capital

Every person in an organization has what I’ll call “political capital.” This capital is the ability to get people to pay attention to you, follow you, and/or support your decisions. I don’t mean to be cynical; I only mean to present a helpful model for thinking about how people buy into organizational change.

Political capital comes from your reputation. It’s built up when you reach out to people. It’s built up when you “win” (not necessarily at the expense of others)–when you’re right about something, or when you do something good. Political capital is built up when you help people. It’s gained when you give people credit for their help.

Political capital is lost when you annoy people, frustrate them, or otherwise lose face. It’s lost when you “lose”–when your idea doesn’t work out in a helpful way. It’s lost when you take credit for other people’s work.

Political capital is spent–or perhaps, “betted”–when you stake your claim on a new thing. For example, if I say “the future of higher education IT is in plastics,” and other people follow me in that claim, I’m betting that’s true: if it is true, I gain capital; if it turns out false, I lose capital. The thing is, the political capital is “locked up” while you’re pursuing the new thing.

Every person, up to and including the President and the Board of Trustees, has political capital within the organization.

Revolutionary change

Revolutionary change is the change-by-mandate. You will often see this type of change in reaction to (1) a leadership change or (2) a crisis. As examples: a new CIO comes in and reorganizes the department, or the IT department fails an audit.

Advantages

  • Low risk of the change failing to take effect.
  • Change will occur quickly.
  • Change will have any resources needed.
  • Political cover. For example if another department doesn’t like the change for some reason, and they escalate to their management, whoever mandated the change feels ownership over it and will be unlikely to back down. (Aside: this is not necessarily a good thing if the change is at the expense of the larger organization.)
  • Looks good on résumés and annual reports.
  • Feels planned. Mandates that come from the same person often fit together–for example a change this year to create a new Service Desk, followed by a change next year to implement a new Service Desk tool.

Disadvantages

  • Change may not become part of the culture before focus shifts. The change may roll back a few months after leadership changes focus.
  • Loss of political capital: because the change was less inclusive up front, political capital is lost.
  • Job security for the leader: if the change does not provide the benefit expected, or otherwise fails, the people who mandated the change may lose their job. (Aside: setting this expectation is definitely a bad way to manage, as it creates huge incentives for leaders to make the change look like it worked.)
  • Opportunity cost: other improvements may be needed but everyone is tied up working on the mandated improvement.
  • Not necessarily a “good fit” for the organization: the current situation was likely not understood well, so the solution applied often leaves pain points or gaps.
  • Often treats people like robots.

Evolutionary change

Evolutionary change is change by convincing people. :-) One or more “change agents” see an opportunity for the organization to improve, and they pursue it by talking with other people and building a proposal/prototype that is iteratively shopped around. (Again, if you’re interested in this type of change see also “Riding the Maturity Model Wave,” which addresses how to conduct evolutionary change.)

As examples: project management techniques that spread with use or changes to an incident management process as teams figure out shortcuts. (Note: these changes are not necessarily documented.)

Advantages

  • Highly likely that, if the change is implemented, it will become part of the culture. More people have been involved in the design. More people identify with the change.
  • Likely that the change fits the organization, understanding the current situation.
  • More brains around the problem, leading to more thoughtful solutions.

Disadvantages

  • Very risky up front. High likelihood that people will not understand or will not buy in to the change. Hard to build momentum.
  • Haphazard. Changes may be introduced that do not move the organization towards where it needs to go. This is compounded if there is not an organizational “True North” or target condition.
  • Can be “design-by-committee” where a sense of central direction is lost. Especially true if there is not one clear owner/change agent.
  • Hard to find people who are good at making evolutionary change. It is a skill. What’s more, these people rarely take credit for their work so you might not know who they are.

Personally, I believe in IT organizations having a continual service improvement manager position, where one of that position’s primary responsibilities should be to learn how to facilitate evolutionary change. They become the keeper of knowledge about people’s motivations and high-level understanding of the organization’s current situation by team, so they know who to contact to build the case for a change.

Applications to Higher Education

In many ways I feel this is a blog post specifically for higher education, because the evolutionary type of change is so common as to be taken for granted.

When you are on a committee building an organizational change, I highly recommend you see that committee as the “Guiding Coalition” in Kotter’s organizational change model.

If you want to talk with someone, even just for an hour, about how to begin or build an evolutionary change, let’s set up a call!