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Darwinian Management

September 12, 2013

For some time, I have presented and assisted organizations in process improvement activities in a variety of formats.
– I have used CMMI which I believe is a very good change and improvement model;
– I have focused on the need for leadership from the top to make successful changes;
– I have spent a lot of time on the concept of “Forget Process, Focus on People”;
– I have pointed out that evolution works better than revolution;
– I have stressed the idea that this is only a natural way of thinking…

One of the questions that comes up frequently is whether this can be done, without management support. What if management is only interested in short-term benefits, and puts their employees under pressure to produce faster rather than to work more intelligently? Can we still change an organization.

I believe this can be done, but it is not easy. Management, senior and middle, owns the working hours employees put in; if they decide to stop you from doing something, it can be very difficult and challenging to do the opposite. I believe it can be done, but it will not be easy.

For some time, I have pointed out that the concept of “institutionalized processes” are work practices which have entered the DNA of the organization. Since the 19th century, we have created a new living species: the multinational corporation. These are organizations, which, like every other living organism, seek only their own growth and the continuation of their line. They often forget that they were in business to provide a service or a solution, and appear to only focus on killing (bankruptcy) or eating (merger) their competitors. They seek to reproduce (new markets) and grow (expand) at the cost of everything else. Their own well-being (shareholder dividends) are more important than anything else in the world. Like every being, they are made of cells, which are the staff members. These can leave and new cells can be generated (hired) without changing the fundamental structure of the organization. A process which is part of the DNA is one which the employees believe is a natural and normal way of doing things.

Evolution, based on Darwinian principles, says that many random mutations happen within the DNA at every generation. Most of these have no noticeable impact; some have a negative impact and are quickly killed off by the gene-pool; finally, some have a beneficial impact and are found in subsequent generations, developing as they spread and are strengthened through reproduction between “advanced” creatures.

The concept of “Darwinian Management” is the acceptance that employees may try different ways of doing things and learn from the results; if it works, it may become part of the standard approach; if it doesn’t, lessons can be learned.

There are two possible implementations.

In the first case, management understands this and allows experiments to be conducted. This is the idea behind “continuous improvement” and is the recommended approach, it is the one most likely to produce results, but – again – it requires management’s support and leadership.

In the second case, management does not accept this, but believes that they have established everything that needs to be done and the staff just needs to do as they are told. In this case, we can try “improvement by stealth”, in which the staff will try to carry out practices in small teams (or individually) and prove the success – or communicate the lessons learnt.

I will be talking more about this soon at a meeting of the Romanian Association for Better Software, in Cluj. The presentation will be followed by a discussion and debate, during which I hope to be able to refine and complete the concepts of Darwinian Management. For more information on this presentation, see the RABS website.

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