"I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones." John Cage
I'm not really a fan of prediction lists. This time of year there tends to be a surfeit of them. But I think Seth Godin has it about right when he says that the two most important trends of the coming decade are change and frustration, and that the coolest thing, "is that just about everyone gets to pick which one of these two alternatives they want to spend their time on."
Paul Klugman describes the noughties as the decade in which (at least economically speaking) "we achieved nothing and learned nothing". Maybe he's right, maybe not. It certainly feels as though, when so much else has already changed, business has inherently not changed – at least in the ways that really matter.
At the beginning of the last decade, Ray Kurzweil wrote about The Law of Accelerating Returns, extending Moore's Law to describe the exponential growth of technological progress as part of an ever reducing cycle of paradigm shift – the idea of accelerating change. A continually increasing rate of not just technological, but social and cultural change. Transformational technologies are becoming ever more rapidly embedded in cultural norms, so that they become what Stephen Johnson describes as "more and more like plumbing, and plumbing is eternal". Technology no longer supports change, it drives it. So the reality of an infrastructure of massive connection and possibility that Seth talks about, really has changed things for good.
Like the competitive landscape. For communications, for every industry, the next disruption will likely come not from the established competitor that you marketshare against and spend all your time watching, but from a small, smart, agile start-up that wasn't even in your market until recently. And disruption will not come occasionally, it will be constant. If companies fail, these days it will not be because they didn't fight, but because they were fighting the wrong war.
Big business is (still) nowhere near agile enough, often operating to planning cycles that become out-of-date as soon as they've worked their way up the hierarchical chain to be authorised. At one level, it is perhaps easy to appreciate the difficulty of cultural change within established organisations. Peter Drucker talked about the importance of the "social function" of management. And how it is the pervasiveness of this social function that creates the most serious challenge to management – its accountability and legitimacy, which are often determined by shareholders and institutions whose primary concern is that the enterprise's sole function is to provide the largest possible immediate gain.
We talk a lot about embracing failure. But the harsh reality is that failure does not sit well with a culture focused on short-term maximum gain. Organisational resources are directed towards acheiving incremental growth, hitting the next quarter's number, leaving little space for exploring the new or the different (or the thing that will, maybe, save your business in five years time). So perhaps it's easy to understand the spiral that businesses (and whole industries) get into of doing-what-you've-always-done-but-slightly-more-efficiently. What psychologists call "Path Dependency".
But perhaps not. Because survival is increasingly about innovation, not efficiency. Life is messy. In Re-imagine!, Tom Peters talks about the transition from clunky bureaucracies, plodding toward success to agile alliances failing their way to success, from cycles that last decades to cycles that last months, from a place where accountants rule, to one where innovators rule. Corporate culture, he says, clings to ideals like 'order' and 'efficiency':
"But…we must glory in very murk and muck and mess that yield true innovation"
The 'murk and muck and mess' – I love that bit. It reminds you that real change comes not from neatly packaged or painstakingly created opportunities but from the actions of workers in the thick of the daily grind. And that, as Tom says, innovation comes "not from market research or carefully crafted focus groups, but from pissed-off people". And that the job is to innovate, succeed, and keep on innovating, because "success always makes obsolete the very behaviour that acheived it."
In his digital 'World Builders' piece that he wrote late last year, Jonathan Harris reminds us of something very important – that the digital world belongs to all of us, not just the companies that dominate it, and that makes us all digital architects:
"The momentum of technological growth is too strong for us to prevent it from defining our future. Like it or not, our future world will largely be digital. Instead of fleeing to the forest, we must find the humanity in the machine and learn to love it. If we decide the humanity does not yet exist there in the ways we expect, then we must create it."
One of the twitter memes doing the rounds around new year, #10yearsago, (mostly) featured people thinking back to what they were doing at the turn of the century. At the end of '99 I was about to start my first digital job. It was a job that would change my life. My thought for the new decade is this – embrace change or it will engulf you. A decade goes by awful quick.