Evolution or revolution?

One of my clients found itself this week at one of those standing-on-the-precipice moment:  In this project, are we creating an evolution, or a revolution?

This community is well into the process of making revisions to some basic systems for how it does business, and the staff realized that they stood at a fork in the road.  On the one hand, they could focus on cleaning up and streamlining the existing structure: improve the processes, fix some nagging problems, put in some cool new tools, but leave the fundamental paradigm intact.  Continue on more or less as they had done for nearly 10 years.  Evolve.

On the other hand, they could take this moment in time to completely remake the process, to do something fundamentally different that held out the promise of curing some deeper ills that had always seemed to be out of reach within the existing structure.  Strike out on something new, potentially huge and largely unknown.  Revolution.

Despite my recent rhetoric, I’m not generally a damn the torpedoes kind of person.  In most situations I see infinite shades of grey, and I can usually find both pros and cons to the status quo.  Stability, institutional memory, consistency, lack of learning curve… those things matter, deeply.  Especially for overextended, good-intentioned organizations tasked with the most difficult issues around.

That was the crux of the argument in favor of the evolutionary approach.  After all, this agency had done a pretty significant overhaul of the same system a few years ago, and the memory of turmoil, confusion, angry struggles and uneasy compromises still hung in the air for many of them.  Two staffers described how the work to finish the new system had been completed by a small group in a closed room….whose door didn’t hide the shouting and crying from the rest of the office.  For weeks.

You have too little staff, huge demands, some recently-closed wounds. Why would you want to throw it all out and start over?

Here’ what amazed me and the other consultants working on this project: across the spectrum of people to whom we said, “Evolution or Revolution?” only a couple voted for evolution.  Across the board, even among the people we thought least likely to want to strap on the armor, the response was the same:

We want a system that works better.  Not a little better; much better.

Our community desperately needs new solutions, and we won’t be able to do that with just tweaks to what we have today.

It’s our responsibility to do the best we possibly can for the long-term good of our community…. And that means that we need to take on the revolution.


Revolutions are scary.  These guys know that… and they know that they don’t know how scary it’s going to get.  These guys have scars.  And they are making the sober choice to go into a bigger battle despite what they have seen before.

Deciding to start the revolution can’t be just a response to boredom or a cool idea in a magazine.  A revolution takes bravery.  And that bravery had to come from somewhere deep:

Deep knowledge of the place and its people.

Deep understanding that the existing structure, at its core, isn’t doing what this place and its people deeply need.

Deep personal and professional integrity to admit that these are the facts of the matter.

Deep personal and professional bravery – the will to power to assert that this is the time and we are the people who have the opportunity to make it happen, even if we can anticipate that we may ultimately fall off the barricades.

Making the choice to start a revolution is only a first step toward actually making meaningful change.  They and we know that this revolution could fade in the face of opposition, leadership indifference, carelessness or loss of bravery.  And I think everyone realizes that it probably won’t come out in the end the way we might think it will from where we stand today.  But that choice – evolution or revolution – must be made if anything is going to get better.

I’m proud of these guys.   Viva la revolution.



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