The evolution of our organisations

I’ve been reading recently about the evolution of species, and it struck me how similar that process is to the evolution of our own organisations and their internal structures and processes.

Often I find myself in an organisation where some kind of change needs to happen in its processes, structures, and the interpersonal relationships that follow from that. Sometimes the need for change is significant enough to be recognised and labelled as a “transformation”. In these cases one or two people will observe, fairly, that “if you designed a system to do what we have to do, you wouldn’t design it like this,” and I will always say that, while that may be true, I always believe that the system got this way by people making the best decisions they could at the time using the information they had at the time about the world and enviroment.

This is much like evolution in nature. Species change from time to time (by genetic mutation), and those species that last do so because their changes means they are better suited to operating in the current environment.

Organisational evolution and natural evolution are similar in that there isn’t much looking ahead when considering what change may be appropriate. In natural evolution there is actually zero look-ahead. As Richard Dawkins said, if there is a watchmaker, it is a blind watchmaker. In organisational evolution we do try to make changes according to what will happen in future, but we cannot honestly make predictions about the far future. We can usually only guess at a few weeks or, at best, months.

Of course, there are differences, too. Natural evolution has no-one making the design changes, and its changes are only tiny. Organisations do have people deciding on the changes, and do have the opportunity to make radical overhauls; these are the “transformations” referenced earlier.

Despite these big differences, however, there is one hard reality shared by both naturally-evolving species and human-driven organisations, and it is a reality expressed most concisely by W. Edwards Deming: survival is not mandatory.

Photo by Jasper Nance