Self-Organization vs. Evolution

I sometimes notice a bit of confusion about evolution and self-organization, leading to such silly remarks as “Our team evolved to a ten times better performance”.

I suggest that we take a moment to review how self-organization and evolution compare with each other.

Evolution is based on five principles:

  • Population – There must exist more than one version, or instance, of a system;
  • Replication – There must be a mechanism of making new versions from existing instances;
  • Variation – There must be differences between these versions or instances;
  • Heredity – The differences must be copied along from existing instances to the new versions;
  • Selection – The environment must impose selective pressure (some instances disappear, others survive).

(Note: biologists usually only list the last three of these principles, because they take the first two for granted.)

A single person does not evolve, because there is no population, only a single instance. There are populations of galaxies, but they don't evolve, because they do not replicate. Computer programs can be replicated, but they still don't evolve because the new versions are exact copies, with no variation. And businesses don't evolve, despite variation and some replication, because they don't directly inherit properties from the earlier businesses from which they were replicated. Only when all five principles are in place we can identify some process as evolutionary: species evolve, computer viruses may evolve (if designed that way), and ideas (memes) evolve.

For complex systems there is only one common principle: adaptation. Complex adaptive systems adapt to their changing environments. Though not all complex systems are adaptive (for example, star systems are non-adaptive), from a managerial perspective we are only interested in the systems with adaptive capabilities. A single person is adaptive. Computer systems are adaptive. Businesses are adaptive. In fact, most of the time when people talk about things “evolving”, they usually mean that things are adapting. A design doesn't evolve. It is adapted to new requirements. And my children's gameplay doesn't evolve either. They adapt to my new requirements. Or else…

The concept of adaptation through self-organization is actually simpler to understand than the concept of evolution. Self-organization is “a dynamical and adaptive process where systems acquire and maintain structure themselves, without external control” (Tom De Wolf). There's nothing more to it. A flock of geese achieves order without a manager. They just do it themselves. Scientist Stuart Kauffman called it “order for free”. And with self-organizing teams it is the same, when “individuals take accountability for managing their own workload, shift work among themselves based on need and best fit, and take responsibility for team effectiveness” (Jim Highsmith). Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister call such teams “self-healing” systems. These teams are non-deterministic and therefore able to heal themselves, while an automated or controlled system is deterministic, and therefore not self-healing.

And unless teams are involved in breeding (an activity I have rarely identified in teams), they do not evolve. They adapt.

(image by kevindooley)

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