Terminal Velocity

The world is changing faster now than ever before. This has become the trope of many marketers and technologists looking to sell whatever system they insist is going to help you to survive in an accelerated world.

The result of so much marketing hype is that many of us have been inoculated against the idea. Hear something too often from the mouths of marketers and you naturally become sceptical.

Such scepticism is reinforced by the analysis of smart people like Robert J. Gordon, who points out the incredible scale of technology-driven changes over the last century. The car, the washing machine and international travel were transformative for whole societies.

Have the internet and the mobile phone really done so much?

I don’t think we yet have the perspective to determine the magnitude of the changes brought about by ubiquitous connectivity. It’s like trying to gauge the height of a hill from half-way up.

Personally, I think it is likely that the conclusion of this climb – artificial intelligence and general purpose robotics – will be hugely transformative to all societies. But right now it’s hard to argue that the phone is more important than the car, or the internet more influential in our lives than the washing machine. We are not yet in a position to make such judgements.

Position and velocity

While our ultimate position may be hard to measure, what we can determine is our velocity. The amplitude of the changes that we are now experiencing may or may not be as great as those of the last century. But there’s a strong argument to be made that their frequency is greater. We know that the cycle time for innovation and adoption is shorter now, and that this is having a very real effect on the sustainable success of enterprises.

Take the example of the ‘hoverboard’, or more accurately, the self-balancing scooter. Last summer, these incredible devices appeared under the feet of some of the world’s biggest celebrities. Priced at a few thousand dollars, these luxury toys combined some of the most important technical development of recent years – high-capacity Lithium-Ion batteries, micro electro-mechanical sensors, and low-cost microprocessors – to incredible effect.

Within a matter of weeks, the price of these products fell by an order of magnitude as Chinese manufacturers ramped up production of a variety of clones. Instead of £2500, people were paying £250 and lots of lucky kids got their hands on one.

Unfortunately, their use didn’t meet everyone’s approval. Within just a few weeks, the UK government had clarified guidance on the use of these devices in public spaces; it was not positive. What was expected to be the big Christmas hit was suddenly a no-go for law-abiding parents concerned that their kids would be chastised if they ever took the toy out of the garden. Sales collapsed.

This accelerated innovation, adoption, and often rejection cycle is being played out across industries; not just software, social networks and streaming services, but hardware, processes and platforms. The result is that sustained success is harder today than at any point in history. As the economist Moises Naim puts it, “Power is harder to win, harder to use, and quicker to lose.”

Agility vs optimisation

Business management has always been primarily about optimisation; doing what you do that little bit better, where ‘better’ typically means at greater volume or higher margins. In a world where business models have a life span measured in months, there isn’t a lot of time for optimisation. Agility, the ability to quickly and repeatedly find new successes, is much more important. The magnitude of the changes we’re facing today may, or may not, be greater than at any point in history.  But the frequency of the changes that we’re facing most certainly is. Their scale may not shift whole societies, but it’s more than enough to slaughter businesses. Speed kills.

The question now is “how do you respond?”

Tom Cheesewright, author of Book of the Future.