Evolve


Now that I rubbished the revolutionary approach, is there anything I can offer?
I hope there is. Take small steps and see whether they work. Innovation in small steps? How can that work? Isn’t it entirely against what innovation is about?

I guess that depends on whether you consider mankind (or some form of life, at least) a pinnacle of nature’s innovation or not. Because we got here by evolving, not by being planned.

I will claim that most, if not all, of the successful innovative ideas are results of evolution rather than revolution. What often happens is that when we see the idea, we’re presented with it as THE revolutionary one, but in reality there’s a long story behind it of trial and error, with end result quite different from what the author had in mind originally. Oh, and by the way – you can still change the world. Except likely in a different way you thought you would.

Revolution is large, and people who start it tend to have a specific goal in their mind. They plan, and tend to stick to it. Randomness, chance, errors, problems – all of those are anathema, something to be avoided.
Evolution, on the other hand, thrives with randomness. It IS randomness, it drives it, uses it and laughs making nasty gestures to bystanders. It gets you to places you never dreamed of going (well, revolution can get you there too – except it can be the last place you get to see, very briefly).

That sounds dangerous, especially within corporate context obsessed with control. But let me ask you – what can you control better – a small outcome that happens tomorrow, or a large outcome due in a year’s time? Revolution is an attempt to jump over the gap – without thinking whether you can get back, what is on the other side, and the danger of not making it over. Evolution is a string of small steps, taken one at a time.

Small steps are small and you have to take a lot of them – but they have a number of advantages of large jumps. You can see where you are going. If you don’t like where you got, you can (almost) always take a step backwards. You can change direction easily – something impossible to do in a jump. Fixing mistakes is cheap. When you jump, you try not to admit mistake even when you land in a cesspit – it somehow lacks the style one would expect from a revolutionary.

Going back to military (I know, I know, I’m at it again – I think one of my future posts will be why I think looking at military history is a useful analog), it uses the evolutionary, iterative approach quite a bit.
Take for example an OODA loop. That’s Observe, Orient, Decide and Act – and repeat. The acronym was invented for fighter-pilot tactics in later 20th century, but it is something which one could trace as far back in history as 16th century Italian fencing masters, if not further. It’s really simple, and nothing but common sense. You look at something, at the context, figure what next small things to do and act on it. That creates new situation – hopefully what you wanted, but maybe not – in either case you repeat the loop until you get what you want. Or, in this case, until you’re dead. Admittedly, that sharpens one’s mind a bit.

But surely, if it was really that great, everyone would be doing it? I’d say that when people whose life depends on getting result use it, it should be good enough. But business is not military (despite managers reading Sun Tzu), and while everyone in business says that they care about results, I have my doubts. People care about results, but predominantly about results that affect them, not necessarily the business as an abstract entity. Yes, I’m a cynical bastard – get used to it.

Taking evolutionary approach in environment where you have a boss is not easy. Evolution has one very large drawback over revolution. It slow, and very easily overlooked. It tends to involve a number of people, not just one heroic figure. The result is more likely to be success, but you don’t necessarily know what the result is going to be in the first place, and when it will show up – so how do you sell it? It takes a long time to succeed – and can (and very likely will be) be preceded by a number of small mistakes. It’s a political suicide in environment where everyone wants very visible results NOW.

So, revolution doesn’t work, and evolution can’t be implemented. Or can it?

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