There appear to be two opposing models of organisational change in the wild. The first one is often referred to as “revolutionary change”. The other may sometimes be called “evolutionary change”. For example I have come across some suggestions in the community that Scrum introduces a revolutionary change while Kanban promotes more of a slow and steady change. (Sorry, I didn’t mean to wake any demons up, really!)
When people mention revolution I have something like this picture in my head.
When faced with such an abrupt transition many instinctively feel more comfortable with an evolutionary approach that you might represent with a drawing like this:
In my experience the revolution ends up being so disruptive that the system eventually comes back to the starting point (which often was something rather chaotic or at best analytic) or is sustained only in a small island. The evolutionary approach tends to end up as a series of local optimisations. There are some able individuals who manage to create pockets of change but the reliance on that talent means that change is temporary. This is what it might look like in terms of the previous sketches – lots of small improvements that end up dragging everything down eventually.
Picking from the complexity science and the expression of its understanding in the Lean methodologies we should probably stop seeing the two models as opposing but rather as complementing each other. Lean refers to this as kaizen (the continuous improvement) and kaikaku (the fundamental shifts of the system). In terms of the complexity thinking we may be traveling on the landscape of fitness and make small improvents around local optima but we require large leap to find ourselves in a better place (or worse!).
Put together you may expect something like this:
The most important lesson for me is that we need to balance revolutionary changes with small steady progress and that we must anticipate decreased performance before a step change can happen. The challenge, of course, remains as to when each side of the change coin is more appropriate at any given point in time.
Disclaimer: These graphs are completely unscientific hence there are no scales, they are just rough sketches to help make the point.