New Direction 6 – Involutionary Change


This is a different look at the difficulty of grasping a technological process in order to assess and innovate it.

‘Process’ is a difficult process to grasp because we can look at processes on many different levels of complexity.  We can look at the process of two different atoms combining together to form a molecule (Hydrogen and Oxygen make water!)  That is simple enough!  But what of the process of a spring becoming a stream feeding a river into an ocean?  Or the process of global economic development?  We use that one word ‘process’ to describe so many different things.

So, the first question is – what is involved in the process?

The second question is – what is excluded from the process?

The third question has two aspects to it and it is this – what currently, which is involved in the process, needs to be excluded and what, is currently excluded needs to be included?

So, there are things that we can bring into a process that might innovate it:

– More or a different kind of energy

– Different or more materials, knowledge or skill

And so on.  Or we might identify materials, parts, knowledge etc that we have to exclude or reduce.

So, looked at in this way, process innovation is a cycle of involution and evolution where involution involves bringing things into a process and evolution involves casting things away from a process.  Equally, change and innovation methods should be concerned with these involutionary and evolutionary elements.

Aspects of an evolutionary approach are based on the importing of elements into a process combined with the casting off of elements in order to improve the process.  The involutionary approach includes within it this evolutionary approach but is also concerned with what happens to what is ‘cast off’.  For example if a process produces a certain type of pollution – where does that pollution go?  What is involved in the production of that pollution?  Another example might involve the casting off of labour as a process is designed to be carried out by less people.  What happens to those people?  What is lost in terms of their inherent knowledge and skill, their innovation potential?

The evolutionary focus is on the process itself, and the perfection of it.  Only those elements in a process, which serve its evolving perfection, are relevant – there is a natural selection of elements, which serve this journey towards process perfection.  The involutionary approach is concerned also with the environment around the evolving process – what is involved in this?  This widens the view and often yields insight about the context for the process.

Are the two approaches exclusive?  No!  Effective process innovation takes first an evolutionary view.  For example, a brainstorm exercise.  The involutionary approach then seeks to ensure we gather in all of the crazy and less popular ideas and ensure we learn from them.  This could form the basis of a new approach to change and innovation.

Here’s a summary of the two views of processes in organizations.

An Evolutionary Perspective

An evolutionary perspective on the world is based on the casting off of the unnecessary.  When a spear maker makes a spear out of wood, from the evolutionary viewpoint, wood shaving is “cast off” as the spear is perfected to a sharp point.  In order to sharpen the spear to a perfect shape and point, it is inevitably necessary that some parts of the wood will be left out and only what is required survives as part of the final spear.  So, a pile of discarded wood shavings lies, unneeded on the floor.

An Involutionary Perspective

Before even testing out the final spear, the spear maker utters a blessing of thanks to the wood shavings for making the perfect spear possible.  It is because of their “involvement” in allowing the spear to be perfected, that the spear can throw true to its target.  The wood shavings are carefully gathered up and perhaps used for another purpose.  This is the involutionary perspective.

In an increasingly complex world I suggest that we need to take an involutionary view of processes.  Of course, the gaze on the tip of the nose is important for focusing on objectives and the broad and shallow sweep keeps us in touch with changes in the world on a broad level.  However, switching the gazes regularly, trying to “involve” ALL sources of data, all relevant ideas, is a necessary approach to being successful today, and in the future.

Involutionary Process Thinking

We pose the question: What is a symphony?  Is it the musical notes on the page?  Is it the orchestra that played it or the conductor who conducted them?  Is it the composer who composed it or the audience that listened to it?  In order to understand things, we necessarily put boundaries around them.  However there is a danger that we lose the whole picture.

Here’s another example: It is hard to understand the process of growth within a flower if we do not also understand the relationship between the flower and its roots, the roots with earth and water, the budding process in relation to sun and air.

Involutionary process thinking asks the question: What is involved in this process?  By doing this we often gain a broader view of the process and also become aware, not just of the surface symptoms but also the root causes.

For example: The weather pattern in one part of the world might be the result of volcanic activity in a different part of the world.

The problem of a poor crop on a farm might be connected to local river pollution or even acid rain caused by pollution in a country that is far away.

The success of a team building process might be related, not just to the process itself but to the preparation processes preceding it.

What is involved in a process?  That’s the question!

If you pick a flower out of the soil and hold it up in front of you, it still looks like a flower.  You might even call it a flower.  But without being able to root in the earth and draw water, without the connection with nature, it will soon wilt and die.  It will only remain as a flower if a whole range of processes is active in it.  By picking it, those processes are halted and the flower will not remain a flower for long!

If we want to innovate a process, the involutionary approach invites us to think of all of the sub processes within a process, all of the processes feeding into it or outputting from it, all of the bigger processes of which our process is just a sub process.  We look for cause and effect relationships between these various processes.

If we ignore any of these processes, our innovation may only be partial.

The Involutionary Brainstorm

Involutionary brainstorming is a new technique for change managers which tries to focus on avoiding the rejection of even the most, apparently, crazy ideas, when considering a technological innovation.

Here’s the process.

1. Agree the topic to be brainstormed.

2. Brainstorming takes place following the usual ground rules for brainstorming (non judgmental, all ideas valid, one at a time).

3. Ideas are then grouped and prioritized through voting.

4. The top ideas are then identified and put to one side.

5. Bottom ideas are then explored and attempts made to justify them.

6.Top ideas are then revisited and possible reprioritizing is carried out.

7. Learning points are extracted from rejected ideas.

The basic idea behind this technique is that the most popular ideas in a brainstorm are not necessarily the best ones in terms of innovation.  Voting is an evolutionary process.  We exclude ideas and only the “fittest” survive.  But are they really the fittest?  Often innovation arises from ideas that were once thought to be crazy.  By focusing on ideas at the bottom of the list, we are looking for potential innovations which popular vote has failed to see or give proper time to.  Also, we ignore rejected ideas at our peril.  These ideas came from individuals who may well be committed to them.  Managing the “exit” of these ideas from the process is a critical aspect.  The main way of doing this is to acknowledge these ideas and to draw learning and insight from them.

Also, many of the rejected ideas may have been rejected because they are seen to be too radical or ‘crazy’.  Yet it may well be these very ideas, which, on deeper examination, contain the seeds of future innovation.

As already mentioned, involution doesn’t exclude evolution!  It is necessary to make hard choices about processes.  Business is about competition and survival.  However, evolution ensures that we involve where we can and that we do not lose awareness of the consequences of making choices where things are rejected, or people are ‘cast off’.  We are concerned with what happens to them, with managing the ‘exits’, and with retaining involvement wherever possible.

Our decisions about what changes to make to the design or delivery of a process may be affected and even changed by our awareness of the consequences of the change.  These might be:

Consequences of making the change for processes ‘further down the line’, or ‘upstream’.

Consequences of making the change for key stakeholders.

Consequences of making the change for resource decisions (eg the opportunity cost of making the change.

By being aware of the consequences of different actions we can ensure that evolution takes place within an involutionary frame.  How do we do this?

– we try to maximize involvement of people by being aware of the negative of damaging consequences of excluding them (or the ideas they have to offer).

– we try to capture learning from choices which involve ‘letting go’ of ideas, people, resources etc.

– we try to minimize waste products and we reuse wherever we can – again, people, things or ideas and knowledge.



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