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  • Writer's pictureJohn Vincent

Meet me in the valley of evolution

Updated: May 17, 2023

Where in time are you most comfortable? Optimising today or imagining tomorrow? Most of us, behavioural science shows, would choose to have £10 now over £20 next year.

Most organisations, like most people, temporally discount: in other words, they are primarily focused on optimising today and discount the importance of tomorrow. Some organisations, like some people, prefer to focus on tomorrow rather than the responsibilities of today.

But these two tribes don’t mix well. They tend to view the other, and sometimes mutter about them, from their own mountain-top. They rarely meet and collaborate well in the ‘valley of evolution’.

Being the best optimised, most efficient engine today is great – for a while. But there are many examples of established brands that were great at optimising performance for today (yesterday) but got leap frogged by others imagining the future: think Toys R Us, HMV, Polaroid, Bradford and Bingley.

Yet brands that purely focus on the future often fail with the practicalities of today; witness Tesla, burning $6,500 a minute and still not solving its volume production problems (FT 2/5/18).

Businesses know they need to act now to simultaneously optimise performance today and innovate to succeed tomorrow. But these two activities are rarely comfortable bedfellows.

Future-focused innovation can feel semi-detached from the current organisational reality. Today-focused improvement can fail to anticipate the speed of coming disruption.

Good ideas and potential value often perish in the ‘valley of evolution’ (since John Kotter revealed that 70% of change programmes fail in 1996 other studies have continued to find remarkable similar results).

So what shape is your valley, and how do you create a bridge across it to enable collaboration to simultaneously grow value today and tomorrow?

Bridging the valley requires an integrated, evolutionary, whole-organisation approach. Organisations are less like machines than they are human organisms, connected to wider ecosystems. Changes that deliver sustainable value growth change human behaviour; customers’ and, in most cases, employees’.

But changing behaviour is complex.

Context is more important than content. People are influenced more by people like them, are motivated more by what they stand to lose than what they stand to win, are more likely to give if they receive first, are more likely to do what they say if they say it publicly and make it specific.

Commitment is more important than compliance. Change takes an investment of discretionary effort that only comes from true commitment. People only feel that level of commitment if they share a sense of common purpose, are connected with colleagues across boundaries, are enabled to contribute and codevelop, feel appreciated and recognised for their efforts.

Connection has to start with appreciation: helping each tribe see and understand the challenge of your organisation’s evolution from the perspective of the other’s mountain-top.

So how can you optimise your odds of success? How you can bridge your valley of evolution?Here is some of what we’ve learned along the way:

  1. Understand the behaviour you are looking to change: spend time with customers and colleagues, look beyond the obvious, explore the current and likely future context, influencers, practical challenges and potential accelerators. Use the resulting understanding to better inform opportunities and accelerate engagement.

  2. Provide transversal leadership: combining future vision with operational practicality, ideally selecting a leadership pair, rather than an individual, to optimise consideration, credibility and connection.

  3. Plan an integrated campaign: combining different perspectives to optimise progress including a marketing perspective to listen to those who will need to change, co-create a compelling vision and a sense of momentum they feel part of; a political perspective to develop informal influencing structures and create alliances across the ecosystem; and a military perspective to secure your supply lines, choose tangible objectives, give clear responsibilities, defuse mines and celebrate victories.

  4. Optimise your evolutionary route, balancing your portfolio: ensuring that planning and resourcing demands and enables development of a balanced portfolio of change between optimising today, innovating for the future, and evolving the organisation to deliver both, providing for a mix of big bets and smaller tests.

  5. Create an ecosystem to sustain evolution: recognising the necessity of combining knowledge, expertise and talent from across boundaries inside the organisation (including between those focused on now and those focused on the future) and the wider ecosystem.

  6. Dramatise the risk of inertia: by provoking and reinforcing (responsibly) the scale of what could be lost through inaction and a fear of being left behind, to combat the fallacy of comfort and safety in the status quo.

  7. Evidence the future now: secure and amplify the early and repeated delivery of tangible evidence of the future vision being delivered today, to build perceived momentum, pace and urgency.

  8. Accelerate a movement: with motivational power and momentum, engaging people at scale in co-developing everything, from the why, what, and how, to the what now of change. Applying some of the tenets of behavioural science to accelerate progress (eg seeing and hearing ‘people like me’ talking about why this is important and what they’re doing to make it happen; using fun and competition to nudge people into trying, doing and sharing new things; recording public, specific commitments; and building reciprocity into everything you do, creating a dialogue where you never ask what others can do without also asking what you can do to help.

The need to simultaneously optimise performance today and innovate to succeed tomorrow is obvious. Much management theory and practice is focused on how to do one or the other better. But relatively little has focused on how to connect the two to best evolve an existing organisation.

So the valley of evolution continues to be littered with the skeletons of 70% of change initiatives and the carcasses of companies that couldn’t keep up. Don't let yours be one of them. Attending to the human factors of change can help your brand set itself up for success today and tomorrow simultaneously.

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