Revolutionary vs. Evolutionary Change

Some of you know my husband, John Borwick, has started a business: Higher Ed IT Management. His company focuses on coaching and other educational engagements to help make higher education IT better. From his website:

consulting and custom training engagements to help higher education improve how IT is managed. These engagements can be “pull” engagements from IT or “push” engagements by administrators or governance outside IT. We work with on-campus champions to build institutional capabilities for managing IT: capabilities such as project management, service management, continual improvement, or IT governance. We understand higher education and believe that outside groups must assist and coach in improvements, rather than lead them, for the improvement to take root.

It’s really interesting work, and John is particularly good at it.

Anyway, as part of his work, he maintains a blog on these issues. And a lot of the topics he addresses are relevant to our (library) interests as well. To some extent it’s useful because it’s helpful for libraries (in this case academic libraries) to understand how other units we might collaborate with (campus IT) function.

But in a different vein, it’s useful because a lot of the concepts apply to our world as well. The other day he posted on Revolutionary vs. Evolutionary Organizational Change. As The Library feels the pressure to reinvent itself, so too does organizational IT. There is a lot of change in that industry, though it looks different from our change, we’re all going through the business of adapting our organizations in light of evolving conditions around us.

Revolutionary change is fast. It’s driven from above. It’s mandated. It’s not necessarily rooted in a culture. Evolutionary change is slower. It’s change by convincing others. it’s long lasting. This framework reminds me of, but is not exactly the same as Jason Griffey’s post on farming vs. mining from a few years ago.

Me? I’m an evolutionary farmer. There are moments when I do revolutionary change, but normally only when I know a group well enough give a pep talk/set up an inspirational framework for it. More often, my approach to change is very person driven, with a strong emphasis on getting to know an organization and where people are, and building from there. It’s slower, but hopefully has a way of sticking. I’ve had a lot of situations where I was learning evolutionary change and the change I was a part of didn’t stick, and I don’t want to waste my time on that. I want what I spend my time working on to matter in the long run, which often means a lot more one on one conversations and figuring out where we’re all starting from.

ScaffoldingEvolutionary change actually makes me think a little bit of constructivist educational models. Figure out where people are, find out where they need to be, and help them build the “scaffolding” to get from one place to another. Sometimes it’s in a classroom. Sometimes it’s informal learning. Sometimes it’s organizational. But it sure is slower than revolution.

I find this concept really interesting and a useful framework for thinking about change. If you want more information, hop over there and read John’s post!

My name is Lauren Pressley. This is where I think out loud, document what I'm doing, and share the things that I like. I'm the Director for Learning Environments at Virginia Tech University Libraries and author of a few books. This blog focuses on libraries, education, information, & the internet. When not at work or blogging, I spend most of my time with John and our son, Leif.

2 thoughts on “Revolutionary vs. Evolutionary Change

  1. Lauren, Thanks for pointing out your husband’s post since I would have missed it otherwise. As an aside, I find it unfortunate that one’s paths to content can be so specific to an industry that you miss good things like this that have cross-industry application.

    Anyway, I’d like to think that there can be a middle ground — perhaps revolutionary change that has some evolutionary aspects to it. For example, management may determine that a change needs to happen but they can involve staff in helping to shape it and determine a reasonable timeline for it. I realize that may allow those who don’t wish to change at all an opportunity to toss monkey wrenches, but there are likely some strategies that could be used to minimize the damage.

    Basically, I’m arguing that there’s a potential third path — revo-evolutionary, I suppose. :-)

  2. Thanks, Roy. You’re clearly onto something. :) I think in my effort to think through a dualistic lens (not the most helpful approach for deep understanding, but useful in wrapping my mind around a new perspective), I was lumping what you’re describing under “evolutionary.” I like the idea of a revo-evolutionary approach.

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