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Evolution vs. Revolution: Overcoming Resistance to Change

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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Speaking in the context of technology, Michael Crandell at GigaOM writes:

Take yourself back for a moment to 1990, to the era of dueling operating systems: OS/2 and Windows. At the time, many people still used MS-DOS, and Windows was new (and klunky). Microsoft had cooperated with IBM to create OS/2 to overcome the limitations of DOS by adding multitasking, protected mode, and enhanced video APIs. OS/2, they both trumpeted, was a revolutionary computing platform.

Oops. Guess what? Turns out no one wanted revolutionary. We all wanted those improvements, to be sure, but we wanted them delivered in a way that didn’t require redesigning and rewriting our applications, or limiting the devices we could use. Voila! Windows 3.0 brought us evolutionary OS advances, and we all know who won.

Michael applies this lesson to “cloud computing,” a (some say) revolutionary approach to technology infrastructure that places data and applications in remote data centers accessible via the Internet:

What does this have to do with cloud computing? Well, the same principle applies to cloud offerings today. The easier a platform or service is to adopt for existing applications and uses, the more popular it’s going to be, whereas the more it breaks with current practice, the less widespread its appeal.

But the lesson here is broader than the application to cloud computing or even technology. People generally are resistant to change, especially when it means throwing out work they’ve already invested in. This goes for changes in regulatory schemes, legal standards, APIs, user interfaces, and business models. If there can be this much resistance to a new approach that allows for cheaper, more flexible, and more rapid application development, should it be any wonder that music labels or Hollywood so rabidly seek greater protections to preserve the business approach they’ve been using successfully for so long? (Or that the electoral college still exists?)

This is a fundamental lesson that can be applied at many levels. It can mean branding a revolutionary change as evolutionary. It can also mean providing a clear transition to those impacted that protects previous investments.

But the preference for evolution, for protecting prior investments, does not translate to requiring timid technological, legal or social development. It merely means softening the sense of change by giving users, customers, or citizens something to hold onto that provides a familiar interface (in tech terms) to the new way.

A good lesson to remember whatever your field.