Evolution, Not Revolution (3 of 5 Rules of Change)

by abclarke

(3 of 5 Rules)

As a reminder, my goal is to get to 10-12% body fat by November 2007 (starting from around 20-23% in August of 2006). This series of articles talks about the approach I’m taking by turning some business management techniques onto myself. In prior posts about changing body fat, I talked about how I “learned what I was changing” and how I had early some success by remembering “less is more“. Those two techniques help you successfully make an individual change. The next 2 articles will talk about how to choose specific changes. The last will talk about how to make a habit of it.

Che and the Art of Revolution Management

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A new executive gets hired into an existing company with a mandate to drastically change how the company does business. She’s awesome. She’s just had amazing success at FoodleWoodleBoodle.com where she grew revenue from nothing to a gazillion dollars. And, she has big dreams for how the company will change the world.

She’s smart: She knows it’s important to know what she changes, and that less is more. So she’s clearly defined goals for the team and is focused on only one first step! But it’s a big step: she’s going to introduce a brand new product built in a brand new way! She can’t wait to start and her team can’t wait to start…

Fast forward six months, and our intrepid new executive is at odds with all other folks on the executive team, her team is demoralized, no one knows how to get even the simplest stuff done, and all our heroine wants to do is skulk out the door before 4pm and hope no one notices.

What happened? Well, most likely our failed executive tried to implement her revolutionary ends with revolutionary means, and the thing she was trying to change rebelled (a counter-revolution). Like Che Guevara in Cuba in the 1960’s, she tried a change that frightened those who needed to change, and the establishment bucked her. And it’s a very common story…

You Say You Want A Revolution?

This is a blog about change, and it would be foolish of me to dismiss revolutionary means as a way to achieve revolutionary ends – so I won’t. Some truly spectacular things have been achieved with revolutionary means:

  • The American Revolution put in place the world’s most successful representative democracy;
  • Einstein’s sharp break with classical physics allowed us to enter the nuclear age;
  • And Alexander Fleming’s discovery of the antibiotic effects of penicillin changed medicine overnight.

Revolutionary means are exciting; they stir men’s soul; they inspire poetry; they are the means humans remember most in history; Revolutionary tactics are just plain sexy!

But there is a hard truth about revolutions that is rarely publicized:

Revolutionary ends through revolutionary means almost always fail.

Want examples? Well, how about: all the violent revolutions that ended up on the bin heap of history (I’m Irish and our story is littered with them); all the superior technologies that failed to get traction in the marketplace; all the products that have been labeled revolutionary initially that never caught on (Segway anyone?). And I’m not even going to bring up communism.

Why? As mentioned before, everything resists change. And the bigger the change, the bigger the resistance. Revolutionary goals involve change so large it was previously unimaginable. If you try to bring about these goals by making one or two really large changes (revolutionary means), every conscious and unconscious form of resistance will crop up, because (although we won’t admit it) we like the status quo.

For example, if you try to change how a group of people work or interact in some large new way, some people will openly and actively resist your revolutionary change – and these are the easy folks. Worse, others will give lip-service to believing in your change, but continue doing things the old way intentionally. Worst of all, some people will actually believe in your change, but continue doing things the old way anyway because they’re scared. Without near infinite energy and drive to keep pushing against the passive resisters, the revolutionary means will falter. And the revolutionary ends will fail.

It’s not that resisters are bad or evil people; they’re just human. While people can accept and even thrive with small changes, we all get insecure and frightened when the rug is pulled out from under us. Intellectually we may think the change is a good idea, but emotionally we feel threatened.

I want to achieve revolutionary ends, but I don’t have limitless energy or drive and I prefer my attempts at change to have higher odds of success. Fortunately there is another way to succeed…

Vive Le Evolution!

You may not know this, but Malcom McLean has had a big impact on your life. McLean initiated one of the most revolutionary changes of the 20th century – a change that enabled a scale of globalization that was hereto unimaginable. This change has allowed us to get access to goods from far away countries and prices that would shock and astound our grandparents. And what did McLean do? He built a ship that took trailers directly from trucks and stored them directly in its cargo area without requiring the trailer to be opened and repacked.

This one change has directly led to the cost of shipping via the ocean to drop from over $5/ton in the 1950’s to less than $0.20/ton today.

McLean dreamt big and always meant to revolutionize the shipping industry. He first had his big idea of loading ships directly from trucks in 1937, but at the time this idea would have required rail car infrastructure to change, truck beds to standardize, and mechanization to take hold in docks (a place where the Longshoremen ruled) – or put another way, achieving his revolutionary ends would have required truly revolutionary means. He didn’t even attempt it. But over the next 20 years, thanks in large part to World War II, the rail industry developed box cars that loaded directly from trucks. Forms of truck-standardization begin to appear (large boxes). And dock owners were open to mechanization technology to recover margins that had been falling since the war ended. In 1956, the year McLean’s first container ship sailed, his revolutionary change required only one evolutionary idea: load the trailers directly, and therefore don’t require the truck containers to be opened.

McLean is a good example of revolutionary ends achieved through evolutionary means. But it’s not the only one. Property law evolved slowly over centuries in Anglo-Saxon law, but has revolutionized how humans live. The Internet revolution has been achieved through thousands of small evolutions including networking protocols (TCP/IP), cabling innovations (Ethernet), and programs that parse simple text protocols (web browsers).

In fact, look closer at the examples I gave of “revolutionary ends achieved through revolution means” and you’ll see something interesting. While we’re taught the sexy story that they happened overnight, in fact they did not – they evolved:

  • The creation of the US representative democracy experiment started well before the start of the Revolutionary War (you can see it stirring in writings well before 1776), and continues to evolve to this day;
  • Einstein’s big breakthrough of special relativity built heavily on papers published just before Einstein’s (as Newton before him, Einstein saw far because he stood on the shoulders of giants);
  • And Fleming’s “overnight success” with penicillin actually took over 20 years and an entire team of talented scientists making small evolutionary changes.

In all the cases cited above, the drivers of the change had revolutionary ends in mind… they just used a series of smaller evolutionary steps to get there.

Put another way, Evolution, not Revolution.

Fight the Revolution; Accept the Evolution

We’re odd creatures. We’re inspired by revolutionary ends and ideals (the stuff of dreams) but actively resist and fight revolutionary means.

So what’s the key so succeeding at bring about big change? Well, first, it’s always good to have a revolutionary end in mind — the dream is powerful, absolutely required and must be shared by everyone involved in the change.

But in the early stages of change, when you’re trying to get a team to see the goal can be achieved, try to start by evolving from existing systems, people or processes.

People (even good people) will fight a revolutionary step that forces them to move too far out of their comfort zone, but most people (even bad people) will acquiesce to an evolutionary step that moves closer to a revolutionary goal. And after several successful evolutionary steps, while your team may think the next step is yet another evolutionary step, to the outside world you’re a team of revolutionary guerillas successfully installing a new regime (think of this as Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity for Guerillas).

In a more real world example, it’s easy for someone to resist a totally new system, but hard for someone to resist a 20% improvement in an existing system. And once that’s successful, how hard is it to improve another 20% on top of that, especially when your team has seen they could do it once? Before you know it, by making steps that are no more than a 20% change, you’ve made revolutionary change (think of compound interest: 20% growth over 10 years will turn $100 into $620).

Lastly, I’ll admit there are some times where evolution is not the way to go, and you’ve got to make big change (I can’t recommend evolving the Bush cabinet, but that’s OK, because I know George Bush doesn’t believe in evolution either). But these circumstances are rarer than you think they are – we often think it’s the only option because we’re attracted to the concept of revolution. Beware that siren call — you take a big risk by not starting with evolution.

Person, Evolve Thyself!

So back to the goal here, getting to 10-12% body fat by November 2007. It turns out when changing something personal the same principle of Evolution, not Revolution applies.

If you have a revolutionary goal (let’s say run a marathon when you haven’t run more than 1 mile in 10 years), and you use revolutionary means (no training, but take lots of painkillers), you’ll likely fail.

But consistently making small steps that evolve from what you did the week before, you can achieve some spectacular results. For another good example, go read GNP3.0 and watch the revolutionary change that starts in early 2006 by taking small steps.

On my weight loss goals I decided to try to evolve. There are lots of revolutionary means out there; Atkins all-protein-all-the-time diet, Gastric Bypass, or my personal favorite, the Alli Fat pill (which apparently sells quite swell despite the following disclaimer: The treatment effects may include gas with oily spotting, loose stools, and more frequent stools that may be hard to control). All of them are effective in the short term, but people tend to gain the weight back pretty quickly. But for me, they would be huge changes in how I eat or live.

Last week I talked about how I made one small change – I measured what I ate. But with weight loss, your body adapts quickly, so you need to keep changing.

The next step I made was a small evolution on that: I set a target for how much I should eat, and then started eating 6 times a day (I’ll talk next week about why I picked that).

Eating 6 times a day was a very small change — I didn’t change what I ate, just when I ate it. All I had to do was eat half of what I normally ate at a meal (so I could still eat with others), and then eat the remaining bit 3 hours later.

The results: 1% of body fat lost (17.5% to 16.5%) between 4/24 and 5/15, which was right in line with my goals for rate of change. And I never struggled to make the change because it was so small.

Of course, sometimes it’s not obvious where to evolve to for that next 20% improvement. In that case, I’ll recommend — Rule #4: Round Wheels Work.

(which I’ll continue next week …)

– Art

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