Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny

This is a famous (although somewhat flawed) statement from biology, but one that offers a useful perspective on how to successfully implement any organizational or personal improvement process. As Deming stated,

All Models are Wrong. Some Models are Useful.

This is quite useful from my standpoint.

The concept asserts that the embryonic developmental stages of a living organism (ontogeny) mimic and demonstrate the evolutionary history (phylogeny) of that organism's ancestors. (Recapitulates meaning "repeats" in this instance.)

John Moore, an eminent historian of science, attributes the statement to Ernst Haeckel, in his book Generelle Morphologie, published in 1866. To a certain extent, the idea seems true. *

For instance, the embryos of all vertebrate animals include gill slits (or gill bars, at least) in their necks at a certain stage of development. This of course, reminds us that their ancestors were fish. Of course, only fish actually use these slits in the adult condition; other animals modify them for other uses. (In humans, for instance, the gill bars become bones of the inner ear.)

Back in the 19th century, it was believed that nearly all of the sequence of embryonic developmental anatomies were a true recapitulation of evolutionary stages.

We now know that it just doesn't hold true that faithfully. Nevertheless, there is a kernel of truth in the idea; certainly evolution rarely makes a totally new structure without modification from some previous structure.


So What!

Well, consider the developmental stages of your new project. My restatement of the principle for organizational development would simply state that:

The successful development of a NEW program of improvement is most likely to recapitulate the successful development of PAST successful programs within the organization's cultural and phylogenetic past.

If you are implementing a NEW program, it would make very good sense to study the factors that made the older (and successful) programs work instead of trying a invent or implement a totally new way of doing things. People and organizations are comfortable with the old established ways and are less likely to reject the new untested ideas and schemes.

At the same time, a study of the unsuccessful programs and failures can be educational in that it can identify factors that lead to the death of the initiatives (and occasionally the torture of the participants!).

Hope this helps. This concept has repeatedly helped me when the goal was assisting some organizational transformation. By identifying the critical success and failure factors, one is almost guaranteed a more successful implementation.

Remember that the most common stages of a Project are generally:

1. Enthusiasm

2. Disillusionment

3. Panic about Progress

4. Search for the Guilty with a Blame Frame

5. Punishment of the Innocent

6. Praise and Honor for all Non-Participants

(Please note that the above 6 phases are a joke....maybe!)

 And then there are the Six Phases of a 2nd Project

1 - Mild enthusiasm combined with unexpressed general concern
2 - Search for volunteers
3 - Avoidance of involvement
4 - Search for anything positive
Discussion of 3rd project tabled for later discussion. Much later…

In reality, the General Success Factors often include, but certainly aren't limited to:

Top management involvement
Development of trust
Active engagement and involvement of participants
Linking to previous successes
Perceived low risk of implementation
Low cost of trial implementation
Focuses on a critical factor necessary for the organization's success
Lots of involvement of personnel, cross-departmental
Hoopla, catchy name, fun, visibility, etc.

 (Nah, no cute little words spelling out anything...)

* A corollary to the idea is that all vertebrate embryos are very similar in their earliest stages, and that they then diverge to individual shapes in later stages. That also is nearly true. But recently there has been an attack on the original proposer of the idea, that same Haeckel. He made now-famous comparative drawings of fish, amphibians, birds, mammals at comparable embryo ages, showing the remarkable similarity they seemed to show in earlier stages. If you open a biology text, there is a good chance of seeing these drawings. It is now believed that Haeckel deliberately mis-drew these, to emphasize the similarity and downplay the differences that are truly present. The whole idea isn't baloney, but Haeckel apparently went beyond normal science to make his point more acceptable. (For more on this, see Science, Vol. 277, page 1435, for Sept. 5, 1997).


Thanks to John Snyder for his input on the scientific basis and history of this model. John is a Professor of Biology at Furman University. I have taken liberally from John's ideas. This last paragraph is from John's note to me.

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