Organizations are approaching change using the wrong framework. For the past eight years the terms “transformation” and “disruption” have reigned supreme in the popular press. While much has been written about these themes, the general consensus is that “transformation” and “disruption” in both for-profit and not-for-profit enterprises remains closer to art than science. People – academics, consultants and journalists are mired in a confusing miasma of MSU-ing [i.e., people making stuff up – frameworks and factoids about how to manage/lead and prosper in high-change environments]. I suggest we approach the challenge of severe, sudden and substantive change from a different direction. Rather than saying we live in “transformational times” or “an age of disruption” why don’t we say, “we live in revolutionary times”? The good thing about revolution, revolutions and revolutionaries is that they are complex events/personalities that have been studied from several angles for over four centuries. There exists a sizable body of scholarship modern executives can build upon. Bottom line – we don’t have to make up responses to radical change. The historical record provides ample empirical evidence about what works and what does not.
Thinking Positively About Revolution
When one asks [as I have repeatedly] C-level executives to undergo an aural Rorschach test and blurt out the first word, phrase or image that comes to mind when one hears the word “revolution” one gets a fascinating spectrum of responses.
I was surprised that the preponderance of responses lean to the “dark side” [i.e., viewed revolution as a bad thing]. Revolution – when done right – can actually be a good thing.
Executives Don’t Think About Revolutions and Revolutionaries Enough
Executives need to add “revolution” to how they think and how they talk. Bernard Lewis in his essay “Islamic Concepts of Revolution” [1972, 37-38] discussed the occurrence in classical Arabic of “a number of words to denote rebellion or insurrection.” In the West, we don’t just have the words for revolution, we have a right to revolution.
In C.L. Becker’s classic The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of Political Ideas we are reminded of that document’s frank assertion of the right of revolution, whenever “the people” are convinced that the existing government has become destructive of the ends for which all governments is instituted among men.”
Executives have a right to revolt – actually they have a responsibility to revolt when status quo mindsets and behaviors fail to produce satisfactory outcomes.
During a series of “revolutions” workshops three general modes of thinking surfaced regarding revolutions. The first mode viewed revolutions as a specific historical event – having a start, middle and an end [e.g., The American Revolution 1765-1783; The French Revolution 1789-1799; The Industrial Revolution 1760 – 1840; The Information Revolution 1970-2000]. In academic circles there is much debate about “periodization” [i.e., when one should place the start and end dates – see Junto podcast Episode #2].
The second mode viewed revolution as a journey from one point to another. The key question here becomes where is this revolution taking us.
The third mode viewed revolution as a “change process”. The question here revolves around what levers were pulled/can be pulled along the way.
Scholars have accumulated a lot of knowledge about revolutions. Some lessons learned during “historical” revolutions may be helpful for modern executives. The most important thing to know about revolutions is when one is in the midst of one.
Revolution Differs from “Normal” Change
While executives viewed the terms “inflection point”, “tipping point”, “paradigm shift”,
“disruption”, and “transformation” as being vaguely synonymous with “revolution”, they concluded that revolutions were different. They defined a revolution as:
“Transitional Moment existing between one mode of thinking/behavior/set of assumptions and another.”
The speed of change, the degree of change and the impact of change is what makes a revolution a revolution. The foreign policy establishment has historically used “the price of backwardness” as a grading variable in their evaluation of revolution. The variance in capabilities of those on the front end of the revolutionary wave and those lagging defines revolution in the minds of many:
“…an Italian of the early sixteenth century
[Charles the VIII of France had just invaded],
a Sudanese warrior in 1898 confronting British machine guns,
a Frenchman in 1940 experiencing the German blitzkrieg,
or an Iraqi in 1991 facing American smart bombs.”
Max Boot, War Made New: Technology, Warfare and the Course of History, 1500 to Today
Is your organization ready for the revolution?