TITLE: Revolution, Then Evolution
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: July 28, 2008 3:44 PM
I recently started reading
The Art of Possibility,
by Roz and Ben Zander, and it brought to mind a pattern
I have seen many times in literature and in life. Early
on, the Zanders explain that this book is "not about making
incremental changes that lead to new ways of doing things
based on old beliefs". It is "geared toward causing a
total shift of posture [and] perceptions"; it is "about
transforming your entire world".
That's big talk, but the Zanders are not alone in this
message. When talking to companies about creating new
products, reaching customers, and running a business,
Guy Kawasaki uses the mantra Revolution, Then Evolution.
Don't try to get better at what you are doing now, because
you aren't always doing the right things. But also don't
worry about trying to be perfect at doing something new,
because you probably won't be. Transform your company or
your product first, then work to get better.
This pattern works in part because people need to be
inspired. The novelty of a transformation may be just what
your customers or teammates need to rally their energies,
when "just" trying to get better will make them weary.
It also works despite running contrary to our fixation
these days with "evolving". Sometimes, you can't get there
from here. You need a mutation, a change, a transformation.
After the transformation, you may not be as good as you
would like for a while, because you are learning how to
see the world differently and how to react to new stimuli.
That is when evolution becomes useful again, only now
moving you toward a higher peak than was available in the
I have seen examples of this pattern in the software world.
Writing software patterns was a revolution for many companies
and many practitioners. The act of making explicit knowledge
that had been known only implicitly, or the act of sharing
internal knowledge with others and growing a richer set of
patterns, requires a new mindset for most of us. Then we
find out we are not very good, so we work to get better, and
soon we are operating in a world that we may not have been
able even to imagine before.
Adopting agile development, especially a practice-laden
approach such as XP, is for many developers a Revolution,
Then Evolution experience. So are major lifestyle changes
such as running.
Many of you will recognize an old computational problem that
is related to this idea:
Programs that do local search sometimes get stuck at a local
maximum. A better solution exists somewhere else in the
search space, but the search algorithm makes it impossible
for the program to get out of the neighborhood of the local
max. One heuristic for breaking out of this circumstance
is occasionally to make a random jump somewhere else in the
search space, and see where hill climbing leads. If it leads
to a better max, stay there, else jump back to the starting
In AI and computer science more generally, it is usually
easier to peek somewhere else, try for a while, and pop
back if it doesn't work out. Most individuals are reluctant
to make a major life change that may need to be undone later.
We are, for the most part, beings living in serial time. But
it can be done. (I sometimes envy the freer spirits in this
world who seem built for this sort of experimentation.) It's
even more difficult to cause a tentative radical transformation
within an organization or team. Such a change disorients the
people involved and strains their bonds, which means that you
had better well mean it when you decide to transform the team
they belong to. This is a major obstacle to Revolution,
Then Evolution, and one reason that within organizations
it almost always requires a strong leader who has earned
everyone's trust, or at least their respect.
As a writer of patterns, I struggle with how to express the
context and problem for this pattern. The context seems to be
"life", though there are certainly some assumptions lurking
underneath. Perhaps this idea matters only when we are seeking
a goal or have some metric for the quality of life. The
problem seems to be that we are not getting better, despite an
effort to get better. Sometimes, we are just bored and need a
Right now, the best I can say from my own experience is that
Revolution, Then Evolution applies when it has been
a while since I made long-term progress, when I keep finding
myself revisiting the same terrain again and again without
getting better. This is a sign that I have plateaued or found
a local maximum. That is when it is time to look for a higher
local max elsewhere -- to transform myself in some way, and
then begin again the task of getting better by taking small