This is the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium in real time
A view from Sue Unerman

This is the evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium in real time

Many business practices that might have changed over a period of months or even years have changed suddenly.

We are going through a very large jerk.

There are roughly two theories about how evolution works. Charles Darwin, who wrote the book on evolution, was a believer in gradualism – slow change over millennia. For many years, this was regarded as scientific fact. But if this was the case, you would expect to see a record in fossils of small incremental change within a species. But fossil records don’t always back this theory. Darwin explained this by saying that there were gaps in the records. 

One hundred or so years later, in 1972, evolutionary scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge suggested that Darwin had got this wrong. They considered that the "gaps in the records" weren’t gaps. That not everything evolves gradually, but that long periods of little change are disrupted by sudden, huge change. They termed this mode of evolution "punctuated equilibrium". This suggests that species are generally stable, changing little for millions of years; this leisurely pace is "punctuated" by a rapid burst of change that results in a new species.

After a huge scientific row, this was resolved by most experts into an understanding that both gradualism and punctuated equilibrium were true. This became known as the theory of creeps and jerks. 

We are going through a big jerk now in business. Many business practices that might have changed over a period of months or even years have changed – suddenly. Change that might have taken five years to bed in is happening over a period of weeks.

One obvious example of this is the way we are all now conducting meetings. Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Google Hangouts have all been available for meetings for years. Conducting a global meeting used to mean jumping on a plane. Now, any of us could be in a meeting with colleagues anywhere in the world in the next half-an-hour. We are all working globally. One senior executive has said that he is having more meetings now than he ever has because the team are usually at airports, out to dinner or on a plane.  Now, with everyone working from home, it's easier to arrange meetings and in some ways it's easier to get closer to colleagues than before. 

It is now well-recorded that, in some respects, media behaviours and attitudes are changing at a widespread and unanticipated scale and speed. Some commentators are saying this is human evolution turbocharged.  

Darwin also said that it’s not the strongest or the most intelligent that survives, but those most responsive to change. The ability to pivot, to react and to take advantage of the opportunities of this crisis is crucial.  This is easy to say; no-one knows when or how we are going to come out of this. It isn’t going to be easy or quick for economies to recover or for new business models to stabilise. 

This isn’t like previous crises. We are living through history being made. What happens next isn’t about returning to normal any time soon. A new normal will emerge, but for now we are operating in the new abnormal. 

Now is the time to begin to reimagine what the new abnormal means for your business. 

As industry expert and WPP global president of business intelligence Brian Wieser says: "Now is a time to reinvent, to rethink, to optimise the forest, not just the trees – a moment of resetting the growth agenda to come out stronger than ever."

The goal, tough as it might seem right now, must be to frame the new developments and tech and digital adoption as an opportunity for the business and to get closer to customers. This is what leaders need to focus on – what we can do to reframe and reimagine. and not just what we must cut. 

Jerks are painful – more painful than creeps – but teams that are resilient enough to navigate them will get through these difficult times best. 

Sue Unerman is chief transformation officer at MediaCom
@SueU
Picture: Getty Images

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