I recently came across a great passage in Edmund Burke’sReflections on the Revolution in France that applies to organizational change. One of Burke’s critiques of the French Revolution is that the revolutionaries wanted change too quickly. But, Burke said, change that is too quick goes against “nature.” In other words, the nature of reality shows that change is an organic process and thus takes time. Leaders cannot tear down and build up organizations and cultures like a builder can demolish and construct buildings. That’s because human organizations and cultures are made up of thinking beings, not inanimate objects. Organizational change that is too fast, the sort that occurred in the French Revolution, Burke said, “renders people miserable.” The passage is below.
But you may object—”A process of this kind is slow. It is not fit for an assembly which glories in performing in a few months the work of ages. Such a mode of reforming, possibly might take up many years.” Without question it might; and it ought. It is one of the excellencies of a method in which time is amongst the assistants, that its operation is slow, and in some cases almost imperceptible. If circumspection and caution are a part of wisdom, when we work only upon inanimate matter, surely they become a part of duty too, when the subject of our demolition and construction is not brick and timber, but sentient beings, by the sudden alteration of whose state, condition, and habits, multitudes may be rendered miserable. . . . Time is required to produce that union of minds which alone can produce all the good we aim at. Our patience will achieve more than our force. . . . By a slow but well-sustained progress, the effect of each step is watched; the good or ill success of the first, gives light to us in the second; and so, from light to light, we are conducted with safety through the whole series. We see, that the parts of the system do not clash. The evils latent in the most promising contrivances are provided for as they arise.
To proceed in this manner, that is, to proceed with a presiding principle, and a prolific energy, is with me the criterion of profound wisdom. What your politicians think the marks of a bold, hardy genius, are only proofs of a deplorable want of ability. By their violent haste, and their defiance of the process of nature, they are delivered over blindly to every projector and adventurer, to every alchymist and empiric .
_______________________________________________________________ Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (London: J. Dodsley, 1790), 249-51.