Plagues, Peoples and Process Change

Evolution involves mutation combined with natural selection to decide whether the change was successful and should be continued, or not and should die off. In the book "Plagues and Peoples," William H. McNeill makes the case that societies of humans can evolve, like organisism but at a faster rate. Societies can change (mutate), and if the change is successful, it gets integrated into the society. For example, with a climate change that brings cooler weather, a mammal would require many generations to evolve more hair and a thicker layer of fat as methods to defend against the cold. But as early human communities moved northward from Africa into Europe, they quickly evolved methods to keep warm -- their society mutated, and when the change was beneficial, it was kept and the society prospered. As a result, societies in northern areas that built shelters, wore animal hides, and started eating different foods thrived and dominated societies that could not evolve fast enough.

Other societal evolutions are more subtle. Most people in the West have an apparently innate fear of rats, but little or no fear of other rodents such as squirrels. The fear of rats is probably rooted in the fourteenth century Bubonic Plague pandemic, with the belief that black rats carried the disease. It would have taken centuries to develop an immunity to Plague; however, Western Society evolved an abject fear of rats, which caused people to avoid rats moreso than other rodents, and may have helped reduce the spread of the disease. Today in the US, the risk of dying from Plague is extremely low, but like the human appendix, the vestigial fear of rats continues long after its applicability has ceased.

An organization or project team is a human society, and evolves like an organism. And just as every organism reacts differently to external stimuli, so does every organization react differently to change.

Process change requires a sort of evolution within a team. If the change is handled poorly, it will be rejected by the team and fail, and the team may evolve a vestigial fear of the process, or of process change in general. One difference between natural evolution and organizational evolution is that natural evolution involves random mutations; organizations can think and can therefore make intentional changes.

There are many methodologies for implementing change. I actually think the process is quite obvious once you treat the team with respect. I've boiled the process down into the following simple steps: think, ask, envision, implement and observe:

  • Think: Decide if and why a change is needed. All changes involve cost (non-recurring costs to define and implement the new process, plus recurring costs in terms of overhead to adhere to the process). One must ensure that the cost of a new process will yield clear improvements in efficiency that outweigh the cost of the change; there must be a big payoff. For the managers in the audience, compare the ROI of the process change against other ways you could be spending your money. For the rest of us, look before you leap.
  • Ask: Involve others to decide what to change. People who own the process and live with it every day are in the best position to identify areas that need to be changed and those that shouldn't be touched. If people have input to the change, and they see that their input is respected and acted upon, they will be more willing to accept change. And it is just as important to get input from people who resist the change as from people who support the change.
  • Envision: People can fear change, so when the change is finalized, it is important to show them how things are going to change, and how they will benefit from the change (and if you can't show people how they'll benefit from a change, then perhaps the change isn't a very good idea). Remember to include people using the process -- the process "owners" -- as well as people outside of the team that might be affected by the change -- the process "suppliers" and "customers".
  • Implement: Implement the change. Use all your project planning and execution skills to ensure a smooth roll-out.
  • Observe: Watch what happens, monitor the effects of the change and measure the impact.

The above steps are a cycle -- after observing a change, one may need to go back and think some more. And it is always acceptable to move backward through the process. For example, one may think there is a way to improve a process, but after asking the process owners, it is clear that a change is not appropriate and you need to go back and think some more.

And always keep in mind that process change is evolutionary. If the change is successful it should be continued, if not, it should be allowed to die off and replaced by a different process.

Quote of the day: "Rules are intended to provide a thinking man with a frame of reference." -- Karl Von Clausewitz

Copyright 2006, Robert J. Hueston. All rights reserved

For example, with a climate change that brings cooler weather, a mammal could require many generations to evolve more air and a thicker layer of fat as methods to defend against the cold.

Sorry, ain't gonna happen. Organisms don't "evolve" simply because you put them into a "different" climate. The only way an oranism changes is through genetic mutation and the odds of a genetic mutation producing something "good" are slim at best. Draw your own conclusion based on the logical implications.

Posted by Kent Wilson on December 22, 2006 at 04:18 AM EST #

This is ultimately the whole idea behind the concept of the "meme". Some ideas take hold and propagate and others die out. Some ideas will actually change to environment they exist in by promoting the continued existence of those who adopt them. That's how memes tie into evolution. A similar concept is explored in the book “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson. In that book, the process is more biological however, with the "memes" in question resulting in actual biological "programming".

Posted by Brian Utterback on December 22, 2006 at 07:26 AM EST #

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Bob Hueston


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