Evolution vs Revolution

Listener Question

I am writing this in response to a listener request.  They were interested to know “more about future predictions of top industry trends, and how leaders make key decisions for their organizations, and spend a good amount of time with their leaders, to identify the next big thing to invest in.”

This is a really big topic. I will look for ways to add this to the interviews that I have with great leaders. I also want to write about this topic from the perspective of evolution vs revolution. I will discuss how important it is for managers to become great at evolving. And I will discuss the unique manager who can also drive revolution.


EVOLUTION is defined as gradual change, adaptation, progression, metamorphosis. REVOLUTION is defined as forcible overthrow for an entirely new system… drastic, disruptive, far-reaching, momentous change. (Freedictionary.com)


To help cement the concept of evolution vs revolution, here are just a few examples. There are so many great ones that I have left out. I am sure many will come to mind for you.


Sewing Machine

For the longest time, sewing was done by hand with a needle and thread. The original needles were made of wood or bone. As our ability to make metal improved, needle makers quickly adopted this new technology. While this improvement was significant, it is a great example of evolution.

The next big improvement in sewing was the electric sewing machine. With this invention, one person could do more than double the work. This increase in productivity drove down the cost of textiles, making them accessible to the common person. The invention and adoption of the sewing machine were revolutionary!

The Internet

The internet is an interesting example of something revolutionary. Unlike the changes to sewing, it is much more broad and far-reaching. It did to a number of different areas, what the needle did for sewing.

The way we find information is one such example. We used to go to the library, look through a card catalog, find a book, and then check the book out or use it in the library. Or we might look at old magazines or newspapers on microfiche (film) to find information. We can now search on the internet across books, magazines, newspapers, blog posts, tweets, videos, and so on. This access to information is revolutionary.

Internet Commerce

Another example is commerce. The internet has enabled commerce in ways never imagined. We have access to banks, purchasing, transferring money, and so on. Companies leverage the internet in similar ways to transact business-to-business and business-to-consumer. The commerce capabilities enabled by the internet are revolutionary.

Computer vs Human Gaming

The last area that I will cover is the ability of a computer to play against a human – and in most cases, win!

I will start with an amazing chess program called Deep Blue. As computing power evolved, so could the ability of a computer to play chess. Deep Blue, from IBM, may be the best-known example of this. The program would compute the value of all possible moves, computing a few moves ahead from both sides and then give the move a value. It would then make the move that was the highest value.

Deep Blue Chess Match

This was an amazing program. As computing power increased, it was able to increase the number of moves ahead that were included in the calculation, thus improving its ability to play. While I think this was amazing, I look at this as an evolutionary program. The moves and the way to calculate the value were logical and leveraged existing knowledge of the game.

Another very different example of a game-playing program is AlphaGo. AlphaGo has provided the rules for Go. It then played against a number of strong amateurs in order to develop some basic skills and for the developers to improve the program. It then played itself many times as it “learned” how to play.

AlphaGo Go Match

The culmination of this effort was when AlphaGo played the best Go player in the world and beat him 4 out of 5 times. AlphaGo not only learned how to play but surpassed the ability of any human. Not only that, but it made moves that no human would have considered, developing its own strategy.

AlphaGo is a revolutionary game. More importantly, the lessons learned from AlphaGo will be used to attack new problems and challenges.

Personal Example

I want to share a personal example of evolution vs revolution in my last role at VMware. I was responsible for reinventing the support model for our customers. The existing model, while having fallen behind, was working well – enabling the highest NPS (Net Promoter Score) in the industry. So, while there was a desire to transform, there was also a good deal of pressure not to break anything!

I identified four very important changes that we need to make. The first was to move us from reactive to proactive support. Rather than waiting for a customer to call us with a problem, we should look at their environment and determine, using machine learning, if there are any problems and proactively notify them of the problem.

The second was to revamp the basics of the support platform. This included ticket tracking, knowledgebase, telemetry, and so on. The platform had aged. It did not have the newest capabilities. The customer and internal user experience were bad.  It was hard to find the information that you were looking for, and so on.

The third was extending the way our customers could interact with us. We took phone calls and tickets filed on the Internet. We needed to add chat and possibly other technologies to match the way customers want and expect to interact with you.

Moving our support away from a website and directly into the products was the fourth change. We wanted to make support available where it was most relevant. This was intended to streamline and improve the experience dramatically.

Of all of the work that we did, most were evolutionary. The changes were logical progressions from where we were. The only one that falls into the revolutionary category was the move to proactive support.


With all of that as background, let me first get into evolution.

Growth and Development of Managers

There is a very typical path that managers, or all employees for that matter, go through. That is to start out by learning an area. Once you gain proficiency, you are likely given a bit larger area. You again gain proficiency and then get a larger or parallel area. This can continue as you progress through your career.

In management, this roughly maps to a first-level manager, a second-level manager, a director, and so on. There are, of course, many other factors that play into this.  There are often other paths offered by companies where your impact increases. I will not address all of these here.

Back to gaining proficiency and increasing scope, the expectation of all managers is that you deliver on your goals and objectives. That you effectively manage your team. This is table stakes for a manager.

What Great Managers Do

Great managers go beyond simply delivering what is expected. They look for ways to do better, to do more, and to increase their scope and impact.

The best way to do this is to look for ways to be more efficient and effective. It is not just working harder. It is working smarter, or working in a different way. It is finding inefficiencies that can be eliminated and opportunities that can be exploited.

This process improvement or transformation is difficult. Some of the improvements will be under your control, while others will not. You can work with your team to make incremental changes to an existing process. But when it comes to larger changes, it is likely that you will need support from your manager, others in the organization, and possibly other functions such as IT.

That should not stop you. Spend the time to fully understand the value of the transformation. Turn it into additional value for the company, cost-saving, the ability to scale, or some other way to measure and justify value.

Then go sell it. Work to gain support. Work through the issues. Make the changes and report progress. Demonstrate that you will not settle with just doing the job – but that you want to go beyond.

This is what leadership wants to see and what separates good from great managers!


Now on to revolution. Most managers do not get to this point. That’s ok. As I described earlier, evolutionary change is key to the long-term success of businesses.

Conversely, some of the most revolutionary leaders are not great managers as they do not focus on the ongoing management and improvement required for a company to be successful. Some managers can do both. I will discuss this in the conclusion.

Below is a list of attributes and skills associated with leaders who have been successful in driving forward revolutionary ideas.

Have a Vision

In order to do something very different, that deviates from evolution, a manager must have a vision for what a different path or future might look like. There needs to be enough behind the vision for others to get it, understand the value and at least some believe that it can be achieved.

This makes me think of John F Kennedy conveying his vision that the U.S. in the space race.

John F. Kennedy

“I believe that this Nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.”

John F. Kennedy

Understand Future Trends

It is often the case that understanding future trends allows for a vision to be achievable. With small electric motors, it became possible to consider building a sewing machine.

It is also, conversely, a way that a vision can be developed. When new technologies are available, for example, a dramatic increase in the processing power of a computer or data center, then things that were just not possible may become viable.

Therefore it is important that all managers keep track of future trends, and consider how they might be applied to the areas where they have expertise.

Unwilling to Settle

Making a revolutionary change is fraught with challenges and risks. It is far easier to stick with what you know. Make evolutionary changes. Show progress and continual success.

That is great, but it will not get you through a revolutionary change. It will not allow you to take your vision, the idea that you have, and make it happen. You need to be unwilling to settle for the status quo. You will need to be tenacious.

A couple of years ago I watched the academy award-nominated movie “The Imitation Game” about Alan Turing building a code-breaking machine. If you saw the movie, you will remember how difficult it was to get the machine to work. How many tries it took. How many people did not believe that it would ever work!

Turing Machine

Alan Turing would not quit. He and his team were tenacious in their pursuit. This paid off when the machine was able to decipher Nazi codes giving the US an advantage in the war that many say is the reason we won.

Uber App

Another really good example of this is Uber and the persistence and tenacity that Travis Kalanik, its founder and first CEO, showed in reinventing the ride-hailing industry. He ran into a tremendous number of challenges. Cities were reluctant to grant operating licenses. Taxi Cab companies raised concerns about fairness. Drivers banned together to fight for benefits. 

I can’t think of a revolutionary idea that was easy. All of them required one or more often a team of people who were not willing to settle for the status quo.

Avoid the Details

This one might seem a bit confusing. Let me explain…

As a great manager, you need to understand what your team is doing. You need to support them. Help work through issues that impact their ability to be successful. You need to show compassion.

SpaceX Rocket Reuse

At the same time, when you are driving a revolution that promises a new way to do things – resulting in dramatic improvement, you need to find a balance between understanding how things work and ignoring details that will mar your success. You need to believe the idea is viable, and you need others to agree. It is ok to know that there are lots of issues to be worked on along the way.

Imagine the issues that SpaceX has to overcome to build reusable rockets.

Elon Musk

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred.  A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.”

Elon Musk

Not only do you have to ignore many of the challenges that are in front of you, but you can’t even understand all of them when you get started. You just have to believe and jump in!

Bring a Different Perspective

There is a tendency, when you do something for a long time, to think within the box. To assume things need to be done the way they have always been done.

I really love this quote. It is not so much about the people in the industry, but the customers of that industry, but I think it makes the point.

Henry Ford

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Henry Ford

Listens to Others

Great ideas, especially those that are revolutionary, often come from a combination of smaller and possibly disjointed ideas. The best way to get these is to listen to others. To spend the time to understand their thinking. To discuss other applications of their ideas. To connect and combine different perspectives, ideas, and thoughts. To use this to formulate something new and different.

An example of this is what I mentioned earlier from my own personal experience. The move from reactive to proactive support came from discussions that I had with our support staff, customers, and technologists. I learned that most tickets we received were from knowledge articles that already existed. The suggestion was to find a way to tell our customers about these more effectively. It came from companies using big data to change the way they interacted with their customers. And it came from discussions on areas where machine learning was having a large impact. 

The concept of collecting telemetry data and identifying customer problems using machine learning that is revolutionizing support came from these discussions and ideas. 

Comfortable with Risk

One of the biggest differences between evolutionary and revolutionary ideas is risk. Risk of failure. I believe risk is the second biggest reason, only behind how difficult it is to come up with the idea itself, that we do not have more revolutionary ideas.

Most people are averse to risk. Or at least averse to risk at the level of driving a revolutionary idea forward. That is because the risk is large, as is the likelihood of failure.

T.S. Eliot

“Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far it is possible to go.”

T.S. Eliot

To drive revolutionary ideas forward, you must have a very different perspective on failure. When you do, you will do everything that you can to succeed, but when you fail you will learn from it and move on.

Confident Verging on Cocky

The last area that I want to cover, and the one that gave the article its name, is how you will need to be incredibly confident in order to successfully drive a revolutionary idea forward. This level of confidence can be viewed as arrogant or cocky.

I expect that it is obvious why confidence is important. Ideas that are revolutionary will often receive support, but there will always be naysayers. Those who for a variety of reasons do not want the idea to succeed.

Autonomous cars are a great example. Even though they have proven thus far to be safer than human drivers (Scientific American), there is significant pushback as to the risk that they pose. And as they start to roll out for long-haul trucking, there will be massive pushback due to the impact that they will have on driving jobs.

The support and pushback that you will receive will come from many different directions. It will come from places that you expect and some that you do not. To overcome this, you will need many of the attributes that I mentioned above. And you will need to be unwavering in your commitment. You will need to be confident verging on cocky!


Evolutionary change is key to the long-term success of companies. Great managers need to develop this skill as they grow.

Revolutionary change depends on ideas that are based on a different vision for the future. One that breaks from the status quo. Very few managers will get to the point where they come up with and drive revolutionary ideas. Many of those who do are not great managers.

If it is your desire to be a great manager AND to identify and drive forward a revolutionary idea, you need to embrace a number of attributes and skills.

  • Have a Vision
  • Understand Future Trends
  • Unwilling to Settle
  • Avoid the Details
  • Bring a Different Perspective
  • Listen to Others
  • Comfortable with Risk
  • Confident Verging on Cocky

While you are doing this, you MUST remember what made you a great manager. My article on management qualities can help. Here is the full list.

  • Be a good coach
  • Empower the team, avoid micromanagement
  • Create an inclusive team, showing concern for success and well being
  • Produce results
  • Communicate – listen and share information
  • Have a clear vision/strategy for your team
  • Have sufficient technical skills
  • Collaborate across the company
  • Make decisions
  • Be honest, develop trust
  • Innovate

One last quote to wrap this up.

Alan Turing

“Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”

Alan Turing

See Also

Categories: Leadership


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