Evolutionary Management

 Posted by on Aug 24, 2007  Add comments
Aug 242007

I recently ran into a book by a German psychologist and executive consultant on “Evolutionary Management” (If you speak German, you may be interested in the full reference below). Since this book is not published in English (yet?), I’d like to share some of their thoughts on this blog.

“Evolutionary Management” sees itself as counter concept to a traditional command-control management and as a further development of Systems Thinking as it has been discussed by Peter Senge for general management and Jerry Weinberg in the context of IT. Evolutionary Management analyzes the mechanisms and solutions evolution uses in the nature and maps them to organisational problems. The results sound strikingly familiar to Agilists, although the book comes from a completely different background.

One of the most interesting approaches is the comparison between the traditional “machine metaphor” of an organisation, and the evolutionary “organism metaphor”. While the first tries to understand an organisation by comparing it to a machine with standards and processes as the cogs and chains, the other uses living organisms like plants, animals or ant colonies to model a company. This has deep implications:

  • The reason of a machine is to fulfil some duty like maximizing shareholder value until it breaks, while the reason of an organism or a species is to survive competition
  • A machine-organisation fosters the idea of a strong leader controlling the organization while the organism-organisation only provides limited power to each individual (If you do consultancy you know exactly what they’re talking about!…)
  • A machine-organisation provides clear and linear cause-effect-relationships, while the organism-organisation shows complex feedback cycles that are also effected by random events
  • A well-run machine-organisation is successful (if it isn’t, it’s either the leader/manager’s fault or the machine’s/worker’s fault) while the success of an organism-organisation is heavily interwoven with the environment (in it’s double meaning!)
  • There are best-practices for machine-organisations, that are interchangeable among different organisations and still work successfully, while organism-organisations don’t know one-size-fits-all recipes
  • Sound planning and controlling determines the future development of machine-organisation, while the controllability of organism-organisations is limited

Having worked for and in several dozen organisations, I have seen a lot of organism-organisation, but not a single working machine-organisation. Unfortunately almost all of the organism-organisations were run as if they were machines, one of the major roots of the problems they had.

Reference: Klaus-Stephan Otto, Uwe Nolting, Christel Bässler: “Evolutionsmanagement – Von der Natur lernen: Unternehmen entwickeln und langfristig steuern“, Hanser-Verlag München, 2007, ISBN 3-446-40437-6


Jens Coldewey

Jens Coldewey, based in Munich, Germany, is a Senior Consultant with Cutter's Agile Product & Project Management Practice. He specializes in deploying agile development and object-oriented techniques in large organizations.


  2 Responses to “Evolutionary Management”

  1. Very valid perspective. Looking at this from an historical perspective, great leadership and management has always been more along the lines of the evolutionary management discussed here. What is lacking in many managers today is the a deeper study of management and leadership that probes the more human aspects as opposed to the technical aspects. These human aspects are much more fluid, less predictable, nonlinear, emergent and context dependent and hence can’t be deftly managed with simplistic, machine-metaphor approaches.

  2. Evolutionary Management II – On Collaboration and Competition…

    This is the second post on the German book “Evolutionary Management” by Klaus-Stephan Otto and others. If you missed my first post on this, you may want to start there.
    Traditionally evolution is connected with fight and competition. Darwin…

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