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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

The Goal of Evolutionary Change

The Goal of Evolutionary Change post image

So we landed in this crappy team that wasn’t able to deliver anything on time. Fortunately we were aware of our mediocrity and knew tools that helped us to pursue evolutionary change. We started experimenting, improving this and that. Step by step the reality around was becoming better. Eventually we honed our methods and practices in a way that nothing else was left to improve. That’s why our evolutionary change effort faded into oblivion. We did good job. We felt well.

Sounds familiar?

Well, it shouldn’t. At least not the whole story.

When I think about teams that aren’t yet great (which means almost every team by the way) one method of classifying them is by their improvements effort. Many of them are happy with status quo and they aren’t changing anything. They’re doomed. Fortunately there’s also a second group – teams that are willing to evolve and can show it in the field.

This is the point where predicting future becomes a bit more interesting. Let’s assume that such team not only does have will to improve but also have tools and methods to do so. What more, they are consistent too. Eventually they should get better and better and most, if not all, of their pains should be addressed. The initial root cause for evolutionary change would fade away. Would that mean that they’d stop changing?

I guess the nature already gave us an answer, which is “hell, no!” Organisms don’t stop evolving even when they adjust to any challenges they had to face in one point of time. Why? Because the whole darn world has changed in the meantime. There are brand new problem that they have to face and old tactics don’t work that well anymore.

The same happens with teams. The best ones would be aware enough, knowledgeable enough and consistent enough to address all the issues they face in one point of time. However their environment will change as well. Someone would leave or join the team. They would start working for a new challenging client or on a new difficult project. There would some dumb or brilliant management moves. Something would happen.

So while I can agree that the goal of evolutionary changes is to make these changes not needed I don’t know teams that achieved and sustained this equilibrium. It means that the goal of evolutionary changes is never reached, thus the need for it never disappears.

in: team management

8 comments… add one

  • Tobias Mayer May 28, 2012, 3:12 pm

    I wasn’t actually suggesting there was any concept of “goal”. Seeks was the wrong word to use. Tends towards is more accurate. Evolutionary change tends towards stasis, unless there is some influence to cause it to do otherwise.

    But that’s nature. In an organization, the mere presence of a new dysfunction (and I agree there are always new ones) won’t necessarily cause a team to change. Many will simply attempt to absorb the dysfunction, and ignore it, as this is the easier path—even teams supposedly committed to change. People also have to get work done, right? And there is still a great desire in organizations to discover the “repeatable process”, and so the force seeking that will often override the force seeking to adapt.

    Hence the organizational evolution will also tend towards stasis, even when we all intend otherwise. Sometimes we need a conscious shake up. Rhythmic retrospectives can help that. Deliberately hiring agitators and revolutionists is probably a better way :)

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 28, 2012, 10:46 pm

    @Tobias – You’re right with a comment on the choice of words. Teams don’t say “we will continuously improve until something happens.” Purpose would be a better term here.

    Anyway, the most interesting part of your comment is that teams, despite changing surroundings, will cease to change absorbing new dysfunctions. You have more experience and worked with more teams than I do. I’d be glad to hear some more: whether it happens often in teams you know and (even more interesting) why it happens in teams that already know the power of continuous improvement?

  • Tobias Mayer May 28, 2012, 10:56 pm

    It’s essentially this: //And there is still a great desire in organizations to discover the “repeatable process”, and so the force seeking that will often override the force seeking to adapt.// It doesn’t always happen, but without someone/some group committed to change it is easy to get complacent. Change takes work—hard work.

    Another force at work is the crisis. We can do well changing while things we feel comfortably paced. When a crisis hits, people will often revert to old behavior, if they haven’t yet crossed their personal chasm as regards to the new way of working.

    Many Agilists recommend on-going coaching or guidance for teams. I’m not sure where I stand on that idea, and of course it is context-dependent. A good coach will help people truly take responsibility, but a poor one may enable dependency.

  • Bob Marshall May 28, 2012, 11:06 pm

    Sharon Drew Morgen writes convincingly and in depth about organisational homeostasis in her book “Dirty Little Secrets”. She also provides much useful advice on how to do something about it. Basically, folks will not change nor vote for change unless they understand what the new world, post-change will look like. This aligns well with the central message of Praxeology – that every action people take is a trade between the old and the new, with the new having to seem better than the old in order to trigger action.

    Also related here is the idea of evolution, which your post seems to contradict. Evolution (generally?) only happens in response to some change in the environment. See e.g. Punctuated equilibria.

    – Bob

  • Marcin Floryan May 28, 2012, 11:48 pm

    Just to pick up on the evolutionary theme from the biological point of view (presuming this is where we borrow our metaphor) note that change is inevitable and happens irrespective of the environment. Whether the system changes or not, evolution (through the exchange of genes and the accidental mutations) pushes organisms to change. Combined with natural selection means that these changes lead to adaptation to the changing environment. Of course, if the environment doesn’t change there is no reason to favour new mutations and thus a state of stasis (or the Punctuated equilibrium as Bob mentions)
    I wouldn’t see evolution as reacting to the changing environment (and thus heading for homeostasis) but rather heading for homeostasis as a an effect of random changes plus selection (a feedback mechanism).
    While the default modus operandi of the biological world is to change the default modus operandi of a corporate ecosystem appear to me to remain static.

  • Piotr Leszczynski May 28, 2012, 11:51 pm

    I think I missed the discussion :) Twitter?
    I would rather call continuous improvement a habit or attitude than goal. For me goals should be achievable, so after some time I can answer the question whether I fulfilled the goal or not. You can set small goals to help you stick with the habit and in fact that’s a good habit to do so.

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 29, 2012, 1:33 pm

    @Bob – OK, to some point my evolution metaphor was naive. I assumed, and explicitly so, that we are discussing team that meets the criteria to evolve. You could compare it to the situation when punctuational change starts. However, if I wanted to keep the metaphor consistent with evolution theory I should rather point that evolution is short, intensive and followed by a longer period of stasis. It isn’t something I experience though.

    The point I totally agree with is that change happens in response to a change in environment. I’m not that much into biology to how small or big the change must be to trigger the evolution but my wild-ass guess would be that there are examples to prove that feasible scenarios are on both ends of the scale.

    Anyway, if we bring “respond to environmental change” pattern to team level I believe that we are stimulated way more often than it happens in biology world. I mean our business and organizational environment is changing virtually all the time, thus we are provided with stimulus to change way more often than organisms are. That is how I explain to myself why many teams that entered the path of continuous improvement keep improving over and over again and seem to avoid stasis.

    The interesting thing to analyze would be why some teams are changing while other do not, but I guess different teams react for stimuli of different strength. That would by the way explain why some teams enter the path of continuous improvement that easily. Anyway, that’s a different story.

  • Pawel Brodzinski May 29, 2012, 1:50 pm

    @Marcin – The more I think about it the more I see similarities of corporate, or any other for that matter, environments to biological ecosystems. Each new developer joining the organization is a new mutation. Considering that there’s no environmental change, it is likely that the new guy would either be absorbed by the org or rejected by selection mechanism (they’d leave the company or in an extreme case be fired).

    In general it means that the org is in punctuated equilibrium. It doesn’t mean however that specific parts of the org aren’t changing at all. The evolution isn’t anywhere close to rapid, but I guess (correct me if I’m wrong) it still happens.

    Then, something big changes: a VP leaves the company, or crisis hits the industry or a new player on labor market buys a ton of company’s employees. In such case the org enters punctuational change phase which means evolution at very high pace. If you saw companies, few thousand people big, disbanding one fifth of their staff or introducing deep face-lifting of management staff these are things I have in my mind.

    Treat it as a side note. My initial perspective wasn’t the one of the org as a whole but of a single team within the org, which is a bit different. I think on such level you don’t need such strong stimuli to start changing.

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