Punctuated equilibrium

That the future’s no calamitous change
But a malingering of now,
Histories, towns, faces that no
Malice or accident much derange.
— Ted Hughes, A Woman Unconscious

You arrive as a ripple of change emanating
from an original, unstoppable,
memory, a then made now
— David Whyte, The Wave

Only endings allowed things to stay
as they were, as they had been:
otherwise it was all change
— James Sallis, Other Conclusions

It is with language and action, enabled and accelerated by technological infrastructure and tools, that we disseminate ideas and make things happen. Language in all its verbalised, encoded and visualised forms is itself a social technology. Yet, with the passage of time, some of its discrete elements, certain images and words, can lose their potency. Round up the usual suspects too often, scoop out their meaning, leave them hanging as empty metaphors, and people soon stop paying attention.

Euan Semple, that admirable digital cage-rattler, catalysed and facilitated a useful discussion on the topic yesterday when he blogged about his misgivings regarding the word transformation. Euan has long been an advocate of an incremental approach to change, founded upon Trojan Mice, or risk-free, small-scale experiments, the effects of which impact over time. Another friend, Anne Marie McEwan, has taken up the baton with her Tiny Triumphs project.

The effectiveness of the gradual, accumulative approach is something that we have witnessed in sport. As Clive Woodward guided the England rugby team to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, he often observed that improvement ‘was not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better’. Dave Brailsford followed suit during his tenure with both the British track cycling squad and the Team Sky road-racing outfit, advocating ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. Their respective success indicated the attractiveness of this approach. It made risk management and the size of the tasks ahead more palatable. Small steps were contextualised in relation to a grander vision.

Of course, one size does not fit all. Our corporate, governmental and societal institutions are often stubborn beasts. They are entrenched in their ways because there are usually many who benefit from the established methods of doing things. They fight hard to protect what they know, activating antibodies to resist the virus of change. Their world is one of tradition, rulebooks and ‘best practice’. The latter is the factor that really sucks the air out of the room. It allows no freedom or space for experimentation and emergent practice, which are essential to the marginal gains approach. It is characterised instead by stasis. There is no requirement for improvement, as the ‘best’ has apparently already been achieved.

Such a mindset is highly damaging. Founded upon the myopia of expertise, it inhibits and demarcates, creating a closed system. Inevitably, entropy has its way, energy is lost, and everything ossifies. Sometimes the only way to shake things up again in such a scenario is with large-scale and rapid transformation. That can seem really counterintuitive to an advocate (and I am one) of small experiments. As with so much else, however, there are lessons that can be learned from the natural world.

While Kenneth Mikkelsen and I were researching The Neo-Generalist, we were introduced to the concept of punctuated equilibrium by conservation biologist, artist and textile designer Susy Paisley-Day. The theory was developed in the 1970s by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, who noted that the fossil record of many species offers little evidence of gradual evolutionary change. Instead, change appears to have happened very rapidly, at the edges, often when a small group has become isolated. Following rapid evolutionary change, the new species variant settles down into a steady state. It suggests, then, that transformation is intermittent, rather than perpetual. Stasis is normal.

This biological analogy casts a new light on human behaviour and action. Often we witness the rebel become part of the establishment, the cause institutionalised in the process. Cultural, political and sporting history serves up many examples. Vivienne Westwood, a leading figure in London’s punk scene is now one of the grandes dames of the fashion world. Dylan Hartley, the recidivist rugby player, is now captain of his country. Lech Wałęsa, Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro and Václav Havel all graduated from the status of activist, dissident or revolutionary to that of political leader. Massive change soon fades into the past, and a steady state is resumed.

What Euan’s post stirred up was recognition that, personally, I have a preference for a particular approach to change, but acknowledgment that there are others ways too. The challenge is to ensure that the words associated with these ideas retain meaning, and no longer ring hollow with the empty rhetoric of the self-styled business guru.

The word “transformation” is beginning to worry me. It implies a total change, a radical departure from the status quo, a discarding of how you currently do things. It also implies an idealised end state.
— Euan Semple, Transformation

Change the words and you begin to change the way you think. That in turn changes the way you behave.
— Charles Handy, The Second Curve

Under phyletic gradualism, the history of life should be one of stately unfolding. Most changes occur slowly and evenly by phyletic transformation; splitting, when it occurs, produces a slow and very gradual divergence of forms. We have already named our alternative picture for its predicted extrapolation—punctuated equilibria. The theory of allopatric speciation implies that a lineage’s history includes long periods of morphologic stability, punctuated here and there by rapid events of speciation in isolated subpopulations.
— Niles Eldredge & Stephen Jay Gould, Punctuated Equilibria

4 thoughts on “Punctuated equilibrium

  1. This is such a fascinating topic and a thought-provoking post, thank you. Personally, I think that human life is never about stasis, if for no other reason than that sensemaking and relationships change constantly. In contrast, i can imagine that genes may go through long periods of relative stability. But I’m on shaky ground there as a non-scientist. Have you looked into emergence as a way of thinking about social change? (I should declare that I studied with Ralph Stacey!) Beware of translating insights directly from evolutionary theory into social arena…

    • Thanks, Alison. I am a neo-generalist. I look for inspiration and insight in all fields. I like to break down the artificial barriers between different disciplines, looking at things from new perspectives. It is a useful way to learn and challenge preconceptions. No right answers. Whatever is offered here is just part of the ongoing conversation.

  2. Hey Richard. Great post.

    With regards to my research on creativity (and how all of this weaves within it), I’ve realized that the process of transformation is not just gradual or just rapid but actually a combination of both. There is this iterative build up that slowly occurs over time and then within the later part of the transformation, there is “crystallization” that synthesizes and integrates all of the knowledge acquired giving it meaning and identity in the process (i.e. The many become one, network evolves to a community, etc).

    You’re also correct that there is this misinterpretation that the transformation is a process that just occurs once and when we’ve completed the journey, we’ve “made it” and we can relax, not having to worry about going through the the struggle and process again. Far from it. Actually I find “addiction” a perfect metaphor for the transformative transition because it is realizing the that journey never ends and will be undertaken repeatedly the rest of our lives.

    A great visualization to represent this is imagining you are walking up some stairs with each step actually being an aspect of yourself. Thus once you step up and the stair behind you is no longer needed, you utilize creative destruction to disintegrate it and reintegrate it in front of you again (i.e. nothing is discarded). This is the social process of letting go of old rules and social structures and creating new ones that let us keep stepping forward on our never ending journey. Thus together, the two represent the dance between structure and flow, stability and fluidity, with both being integral to growth.

    And if you reflect back on the whole process rippling out back in time, you’d definitely be seeing how emergence works. The old self or old society isn’t completely destroyed, as we build upon, reuse, and remix the pieces of our past to step forward into the future. What is broken is the relations and associations between those pieces but the pieces are still there (they just take upon much more “complex” structures of relationship with each evolutionary step). In this way, it is even possible to look back upon your past and even reframe it and understand it in a completely new light.

  3. Having been given the topic and the chance to write a book about transformation this is SO timely Richard, thank you.

    Firstly as I often say about your writing – fantastic read. It’s elegance and artistry is as compelling as the flow and content. I really value reading anything by you.

    Secondly, Euan is often making super smart points that cause me to sit up, think deeply and conclude. He shifts thinking and actions with his words and he is a helpful person to have in anyone’s network. He makes great points you reference here and I am going to revisit much of the work I’ve already put into my “transformational…” title to check up on what I’ve written. I agree and have already drafted that transformation is not a destination. So there was a sigh of relief when I read this. I felt on the right lines with something I feel is really important in the world of work.

    So, in looking at the concept of transformation myself, I have pondered much of this. I am with your words and others here.

    I too think we are already hyping up transformation as we’ve already tarnished innovation, disruption, collaboration and now transformation.

    There’s often great things that come from realising that some “…tion” or other creates new energy, breakthrough thinking and impactful activities.

    Then it seems all and sundry jump on the bandwagon and it becomes commoditised, sanitised and ultimately bastardised. Is this a natural evolution of things? That – as you say – things become the norm and so the words we associated with it (e.g. disruption) become so unrecognisable we think it’s lost its mojo. It is more like the steps in Nollind Whatchell’s fabulous comments. In my draft book, I’ve used the Escherian Stairwell analogy, so I inwardly went “phew” when I read this.

    Using the law of diffusion of innovation (which may have its flaws but for illustrative purposes more than anything here) I count myself in the early majority with most things I come across. Having a naturally curious mind helps me be that. I don’t believe I am an innovator and I am not often an early adopter. So I might be part of the bandwagon and I might spoil things. I might help sanitise and bastardise them. I am always checking myself in on that, yet I accept that.

    What I’m NOT is anti-“tion” as a state of mind. Some of us appear to be keen to jump on something at the moment it goes into early adoption, and kick the living hell out of it.

    It’s like music. You like the Jam. Then they become really popular so you don’t like them anymore because of that. Not because they’ve sold out, or sanitised, just because other people have discovered them. Your Vivienne Westwood analogy is brilliantly vivid here.

    So my plea here is I hope (because I sense we are at a time of needing transformative thinking and doing) that we don’t become contrary about transformation because of having a mindset: “Oh no, here comes another “…tion”, let’s be anti-trendy and knock it down.”. Instead let’s protect the spirit that makes something like this powerful, useful, the right thing to do. Yes, hold charlatans to account, yet through education, not just castigation.

    Let’s not ridicule, let’s enlighten people so they REALLY know what they mean when “transformation” is on the table. Let’s create the deepest, most sincere meaning for something that could be fabulous.

    I particularly like these comments of yours:
    “…transformation is intermittent, rather than perpetual.” and
    “The challenge is to ensure that the words associated with these ideas retain meaning, and no longer ring hollow with the empty rhetoric of the self-styled business guru.”

    That’s the stuff. Right there.

    You may never sense how helpful this post is for my thinking and my own written work, except via these words, so thanks again for putting this into something useful for me, the world and for it being so well crafted.

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