Unlearning Stabilization

John Seely Brown, John Hagel and Lang Davidson recently wrote an article entitled ”The New Reality: Constant Disruption.” The basic premise isn’t new to anyone who has read my book Jump the Curve or The Singularity is Near, and that is that society is now headed into a new era whereby change is a constant and accelerating reality. This is replacing an era where disruption was followed by periods of stabilization. In other words, in the past, people, businesses and society often had an opportunity to catch their breath and develop and orchestrate plans before the next new paradigm-shifting technological change arrived.

If you doubt this radical transformation is real, lets just use yesterday, March 31, 2009, as an example. To begin, Intel released its next generation computer chip, the Nehalem. According to this article it is a “major game changer” because of its powerful new capabilities and the fact that it uses significantly less energy than previous chips.

This announcement was followed by news that a new company, Tendril, is now using existing off-the-shelf technology to make “dumb” electrical meters “smart.” The new “smart meter” industry, which is itself only a few years old, thus finds its once promising business model already under attack.

There was then this article suggesting that Skype is about to enter the mobile cellular market. As it does, wireless carriers, which should have seen the writing on the wall for years, are about to come face-to-face with a technology that views phone calls as nothing but data and should therefore be priced no different than the information flowing over the Internet—which is to say nothing!

Elsewhere, in the field of farming and agriculture, there was this announcement that a researcher has figured out how to grow a number of different crops using only one-fifth the water and no soil. (If not using soil to grow crops isn’t disruptive, I don’t know what is.) And, in the field of robotics, there was this report announcing that Honda is now using human thoughts (via brain-computer interfaces) to control the action of robots.

Each of the aforementioned technologies is only going to get significantly better, they are going to require a great deal of unlearning. As they do, old ways of doing business will fall by the way-side and new business opportunities will emerge. This scenario is both frightening and exhilarating.

The first step is to act. As one of my favorite leaders of all-time, General George C. Marshall, once told his subordinates “get action where action is needed.” In other words, the primary responsibly of any leader is to act. In this era of accelerating change, it is easy to postpone action for want of perfect information or because “tomorrow things will be different.” It is true, things will be different tomorrow, but people will still need products and services and problems must still need to be addressed today. The bottom-line is that a less-than-perfect solution now is often better than a perfect solution later.

Secondly, leaders need to learn to embrace ambiguity, and perhaps the greatest such ambiguity is that failure can be a positive characteristic. To succeed in this new era, organizations must be willing to not only risk failure but actually reward it.

There is no possible way every organization is going to do everything right. To succeed boldly, organizations must be willing to fail boldly; and when those risks don’t work it is important to learn from the mistakes and not punish them.

The edge is a dangerous place and few people like to venture out there but that is where the future will take place. In order to encourage and cultivate employees who will venture out to the edge, leaders must encourage action and recognize that “failure is an option.” Why? Because if you don’t act and instead attempt to avoid failure, you are likely to fail anyways because the future is here—now! That’s the new reality and we must unlearn the old reality.

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