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