Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A guide to change Part II

A few weeks ago I wrote about change. I identified two types of change: evolutionary and revolutionary. I focused that post on evolutionary change and promised to come back with my thoughts on revolutionary change.

If you've been waiting for the Part II (and you know who you are) then your dreams are about to become reality.

I should tell you that I have a greater personal affinity for revolutionary change. It's not that I don't think both types are equally necessary. They absolutely are. It's just that my heart lies more with revolutionary change. You may see that affinity in the way I write about change but please don't take this as an intellectual position that one is more important than the other.

I do hope you will go back and read the post on evolutionary change. But here's a quick synopsis: Evolutionary change is about making stuff work and work better. It takes early form ideas and their early implementations and slowly makes them better to the point where they work really well. Evolutionary change is what makes society work.

So what about revolutionary change? We'll come to that in a moment. But first I feel a responsibility to point out that revolutionary change is not, necessarily, an armed insurrection. Armed insurrections are, certainly, one form of revolutionary change but I will speak more generally about revolutionary change. Furthermore, please do not mistake my passion for revolutionary change as support for armed insurrection. I am not one of those who likes to literally storm barricades. Please contact your local law enforcement agency for any details on the legality of armed insurrection in your jurisdiction.

And now we can talk revolutionary change.

1) What is it?
This is the rapid progress that constitutes major shifts in thinking and, therefore, behavior. This takes society from a belief that the answer is 3 to a belief that the answer is Q. Or guacamole.

Revolutionary change is a change in a significant paradigm, framework, perspective, mental model. Use whatever bit of jargon you like. The point is that it is a major qualitative change in thinking.

When I say that revolutionary change is rapid, I do not mean to indicate chronological rapidity. Revolutionary change may happen very slowly over time. Ideas ferment. They are discussed and debated. This can take centuries. Instead, I mean logical rapidity. Revolutionary change is discontinuous. The intellectual activity that led to the American Revolution stretched very far back in time from 1775. One could make a case that it stretched back at least 560 years to the Magna Carta. Still, to people not involved in the intellectual or creative activity behind the scenes, there is often a single moment in time that delineates the old world from the new. At one point there was a shot heard round the world and the colonies were in rebellion.

Great! After having disassociated myself from armed insurrection, I give you an example of armed insurrection to describe revolutionary change. Here's another example: gay marriage. The arguments in favor of legalizing gay marriage in the U.S. are decades old. But today, Vermont started legally marrying gays. Yesterday they didn't. Today they do. See?

2) What is it used for?
Revolutionary change is designed to replace foundational ideas (whether for an individual, a business, a state, a society...) that are either wrong or that simply have run their course as means of guiding or inspiring behavior. Newtonian Physics worked well for a while. It wasn't useless. But Einsteinian Physics was found to be a much better theory.

As I pointed out in the other post, evolutionary change is designed to increase functional performance. It makes things better. But at some point the evolution runs out of steam because the guiding principles behind it have produced all of the improvements that they possibly can. When that happens, a revolution is needed. A new idea. Something to inspire continued progress.

3) What does it contribute?
New ideas and the massive shifts in thinking that lead to great new behaviors, policies and products. Revolutionary change is the engine that drives progress in the world. Even though, as I pointed out earlier, evolutionary change is critical, evolutionary change needs something upon which to exercise its evolutionary powers. Something has to create the new ideas and the prototypes that will serve as fodder for the processes of evolutionary change. And that something, my friends, is revolutionary change.

4) What are its flaws?
The biggest flaw is that it's messy. The qualities that make it so valuable also, unavoidably, make it messy. Because it brings about significant change and we are rarely ready to completely absorb that change and deal with its implications and effects.

This messiness is also manifest in the behind-the-scenes intellectual and political ferment leading up to the discontinuous effects. Revolutionary change can cause significant discord because not all people agree. Not everyone agrees that a fundamental change is needed. And even those who agree will often disagree on which revolutionary path to follow. Revolution demands quite a bit of faith precisely because it is so new and untested. And it is difficult to get everyone to agree on matters of faith. This sort of messiness sometimes ends up in actual armed insurrections which may be necessary at times but certainly impose a significant cost on everyone involved.

Another flaw is that revolutionary change is so inspiring that it can pull people away from taking the time to evolve ideas and make them better. The prospect of new ideas, new behaviors, new products can be so sultry and alluring that people may too hastily discard the existing ideas. Revolutionary change may cause people to treat everything as a fad and make it more difficult for them to respect the sort or stability that most people need to live healthy well-adjusted lives.

5) How do you create revolutionary change?
You ask lots of "why" and "what if" questions. You fantasize. You challenge the most sacred laws. Of religion, society, culture and, yes, nature.

BTW, when I say that you challenge these laws I do not mean that you go around acting rude or pissing people off. I mean that you challenge them in your mind. You play with them mentally to see whether they are really true and necessary. You discuss with others.

6) What kind of people are good at revolutionary change?

People who can hold two opposing thoughts in their mind at once. People who can acknowledge that objects fall when dropped but also imagine a world where objects can fly.

People who just have an ability to look at the world and see it as it could be rather than as it is. People who can see past (or through) the structures that have been created and understand the underlying principles behind them. And then destroy those principles.

People who are more comfortable than others being laughed at. People who are more inspired by their ideas than they are by the opinions that others have of them. Because let's face it. The Wright Brothers probably took a lot of shit. As Emerson said, "for non-conformity the world whips you with its displeasure." So true. You've got to be able to tolerate the whipping. This is not masochism. I'm not talking about people who just like being whipped. This would actually be very conformist. I'm talking about people who can tolerate the whipping. Who either don't feel it because they are so wrapped up in the inspirational content of their ideas or who feel it but can live with it because they value truth and progress more than the feeling of not being whipped.

Leaders of revolutionary change must have lots of courage. Which is a topic I hope to address in an upcoming post.

To quickly sum up both of my recent posts on change, evolutionary change makes society work better today. Revolutionary change allows it to continue working tomorrow. Balancing the two types of change and the need for some modicum of stability is a tricky task. Leaders must consciously plan for this lest their institution sway too far to an extreme, sacrificing today for tomorrow, tomorrow for today or simply whipsawing back and forth so quickly that people can never feel settled in their lives.

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