Evolutionary Transformation


These wind turbines speak to me of innovation and progress in the field of energy. They also stand as testament to the values of adaptation, ingenuity, determination and collaboration. One of the lessons of systems science applied to social evolution is that once established, a system’s curve of development increases with time until the forces of change cause it to peak and then decline. It’s the typical bell curve. And it applies to all systems, even systems of thought. Everything in the universe rises, peaks and then falls.

Nonetheless, leaders in some systems in the modern era, most obviously those in the arena of commerce, become aware of immanent or existing decline and make an attempt to transform their enterprises in an effort to begin a new growth curve. In essence, they adapt to change by adjusting to new circumstances in ways that are more sustainable. People do it. The birds and the bees do it. Adaptation is how and why evolution is, by definition, an advance.

Whether applied to businesses, social systems or political systems, the process of moving from decline—or impending decline—to revitalization is called “evolutionary transformation,” a term I learned about when documenting a friend’s consulting firm in Washington D.C.. Evolutionary Services Institute (ESI) is in the business of change, working with clients to facilitate positive transformations. In videotaping their process and conducting interviews, I observed that a prerequisite for positive change was the transformation of consciousness on the part of the leader—or leadership. They had to be willing to think more expansively about their organization’s identity, purpose and mission, and relate it directly to human needs and wants. Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Bill Gates are just a few of the contemporary examples of individuals who transformed their companies through this kind of reframing.

The image of the wind turbine evidences transformative thinking that has blossomed world wide. Many leaders in energy industries looked ahead and saw that fossil resources, while plentiful now, are nonetheless finite, expensive to acquire and process and they’re detrimental to the environment. The expansion in their thinking went from short to long term sustainability. So rather than put themselves in the middle between environmentalists and lobbyists, they elected to innovate in the areas of renewable and clean energies.

At the same time it’s important to note that positive change in social systems carries negative consequences as well. Wars can win territory or consolidate power, but at the cost of many lives. We’re seeing how improved technologies, robotics for example, have resulted in  job losses. And less demand for natural resources, notably coal, has devastated communities. One of the principles I learned from my friend at ESI is that “crisis precedes transformation.” When a system is in crisis, it’s already in transformative mode. And the kind of change that results depends largely on how the system’s leaders respond to it.

Crisis or breakdown itself can be an “evolutionary driver,” providing the impetus to affect a shift toward survival and growth rather than allow the forces of entropy to have their way. Critical to the consciousness of those who lead, do they have a desire to make a fresh start? And if so, are the members of the organization willing to do whatever is necessary in order to move in the new direction? Chapter Eleven bankruptcy filings were created specifically to allow time for entities to restructure—transform. And it’s why we hear of employees taking a reduction in salary to keep their company in operation.

Driving through the older sections of cities we see abandoned buildings and shops with windows boarded up, trash on the sidewalks and weeds growing through the pavement. As victims to the forces of entropy, they are gone forever—unless and until a future developer sees the potential for something new. But what about the communities that still have some life left in them, areas on the slippery slope of decline with only hope and a prayer that “the good old days” will return? The bad news is that they won’t. They can’t. As the curve of globalization rises due to increasing complexity, consciousness and interconnectedness, what worked in the past will no longer be viable and the need for certain goods will be replaced by those that are cheaper, healthier and so on.

The positive news for declining communities is that they can rise again—if within them a leader or a collaborative group emerges to provide the will and the way. I think of the factories abandoned due to cheaper and more willing labor abroad, as well as the one product or single resource communities on the descending curve. Waiting and hoping for the government or someone else to restore them to prosperity is akin to the unemployed men we see standing on the street corner letting life pass them by. Governments are not saviors. Their function is to defend and govern, not to create wealth. They can regulate it, of course, but it is people who create wealth.

I think there’s a misperception of identity. Human beings are more than what they do. Mining, manufacturing and production are roles, and they can change. As souls with unlimited potential, when the door closes on one role, we can open another that is on the cusp rather than the tail end of history. And that is good news. Getting back to lessons learned at ESI, positive transformation requires a change of mind, a shift in perception from viewing one’s world as a diminishing circle to seeing change as an opportunity to widen it in a more viable, inclusive and sustainable direction. As we’ve seen and what was much talked about in the recent election, in a global, interdependent economy workers are in direct competition with their counterparts in other countries. Trade deals, tariffs and regulations may temper the employment drain for a while, but it cannot eliminate it. Executives are smart. For many it’s not just about money. It’s also about differences in cultural attitudes, values, work ethics and philosophies. So what are disadvantaged workers to do? Here again, I refer to the strategies of ESI: What it takes for a system or worker experiencing decline is a shift in thinking from helplessness and dependency to confidence and initiative.

In the old paradigm mentality of the industrial revolution, we exchanged time and labor for money, all of which was managed by, well, management. Top down domination. When a man was out of work he had to find another job in his field of expertise and conform to the company rules and culture or starve. In the new paradigm, largely because of communication technologies, a person may not have a “job” but they can usually find “work.” The difference—and the trend—is significant: a job requires one’s presence and conformity to a set of rules, whereas the performance of work provides freedom to activate one’s own intelligence, creativity and skills doing what’s fulfilling and without imposed rules. What began as “freelancing” is now a normal and preferred way of working for millions of people around the world. The great discovery was that, while jobs provided security, income and freedom was fixed by someone else. Work however, had the advantage of greater income potential and freedom to manage one’s work and family life. Of course, as a lifestyle choice it’s not for everyone.

Applying this growing trend in the workplace, the challenge for those who think—or have been told—that they only have one skill and that it’s no longer needed, is a shift in perception: from “I am only good at one thing; I hope things will get better,” to “I am capable of much more; I’m going to develop new skills and make things better.” It’s the difference between surrendering and taking charge. Next for these individuals comes the question of “How?” The first step is the biggest: reaching inside to discover the potentials, talents and skills that have been lying dormant and are yearning to be expressed. In this people need help, and that’s what community development professionals and social workers are hopefully providing, because potentials, once identified and acted upon, bring results. And as the initial seeds of initiative are watered, the gardener finds himself in charge of a garden—both a leader and a model for the community.

An example of this is the Magnolia Market in Waco, Texas, where Chip and Joanne Gains, the hosts of the popular HGTV program “Fixer Upper,” used their construction and design skills to build, one step at a time, a national business with one of their several initiatives being the restoration (transformation) of an old farm-and-seed facility with huge solos, which now attracts tourists to shop, play and eat.

An example of leveraging potentials on a simpler scale is Susan Branch, who through her blog and books has built a worldwide community of appreciators and customers simply by writing about, illustrating and photographing her lifestyle, home and pets.

So this week my appreciation goes to the evolutionary transformers, people assisting others at every level, especially those in need, to help them discover and realize their potentials so their lives and initiatives can once again ascend the curve of prosperity. According to a popular metaphor, by “teaching them how to fish,” these helpers are also contributing to the success of the nation. The good is recognized and replicated. The following quotes are familiar, but they deserve repeating in this context.

You can’t learn less, you can only learn more.

Buckminster Fuller (Engineer, futurist)

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead (Social anthropologist)

Title: Wind Turbines

Location: Milford, IL

File: 988-B3

Just driving around I happened upon scores of wind turbines. Aside from their monstrous appearance and being much bigger than I’d imagined, I was surprised to observe that their blades kept turning despite the lack of wind on the ground. After shooting these great machines in groups with foregrounds of mostly corn and soybean fields, I managed to find one that I could mostly isolate within the frame. My challenge then was to decide the position of the blades. In this image, after several exposures, I managed to click the shutter just when one of them was in the twelve o’clock position. In Adobe Lightroom, I graded the sky from top to bottom. Otherwise, the blades would have stood against the light sky without much contrast.


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