- 1 Accelerated digital communications
- 2 Self-interested change merchants
- 3 Bandwagon effect
- 4 The distorting lens of Big Tech
- What people want is convenience (making things easy to buy and use); flexibility (not being locked in); good value and the best price; being treated like an individual and not a target audience.
- 5 Cyber-utopianism under attack
- 6 Are all markets being disrupted by new challengers?
- 7 Is AI the big disruptor we have been waiting for?
- 8 Short versus long-term
"We are now seeing three dimensions of change: complexity and sophistication, sheer breadth and range and staggering velocity.”
This quote is from a recent survey of top executives published in the UK marketing press.
Commentators now routinely say that change is becoming faster due to a confluence of technologies – faster computing, greater and cheaper cloud storage capacity and Artificial Intelligence (AI). They say that the interaction between these is supercharging the pace of change. But is it true? These same commentators rarely ask the scientific question: what are the objective measures of the increased pace of change?
Some forces, as we shall see, may in fact be slowing things up. And what about the ‘staggering velocity’ of it all?
Your eyes should be popping out with the sheer pace of it. Can this be right? Where are human beings in this maelstrom? Most of us cannot cope with big changes easily and are creatures of habit. Surely this acts as a break on the pace of change. Hold that thought. I will come back to it later. It provides the vital clue as to how you should manage change.
This article is, by way of a sceptical eye, on all those people who are trying to sell you the idea that change is getting faster and you had better change right now or be steamrollered. For starters, it lacks perspective. The idea that we live in times of accelerated change is not new. Some history teaches us that this superheated talk is also an inherited pattern of thought. Arthur Koestler wrote in 1969: “History is accelerating at an unprecedented rate; the progress of a train ceases to be predictable when the brakes are off and the engine is overheating.” The 60s was another period when people persuaded themselves that history was speeding up. British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, talked about how Britain would be transformed by “the white heat of technology”. Koestler’s apocalyptic words echo today’s prophecy about AI, which could be “the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it could also be the last,” according to Stephen Hawking.
A sense of rapid change often goes hand in hand with the foreboding that things might skitter out of control towards disaster. Such ideas resurface throughout history. Perceptions of accelerated change are also given more currency and credence by several other forces and actors.
1 Accelerated digital communications
Overwhelmed by our inbox, we know that communication has sped up and we have extrapolated from this that the world has as well. Certainly the volume and speed of communications and logistics has increased. Yet, for all the flexible working and freelancing enabled by the communications revolution, most of us still turn up to a place of work and enjoy the society of colleagues. Compared to the invention of the factory system, the way we work has not profoundly changed.
2 Self-interested change merchants
Consultancies, academics and agencies have an interest in promoting the idea of disruptive change. AI has superheated this narrative by fuelling the notion that we are about to lose our jobs to machines (I am only slightly exaggerating). The change merchants need to unsettle you in order to create fertile ground for their services. After all, nobody sells out a conference by promising more of the same. And no consultant sold a radical restructuring to a client without raising the spectre of competitive disruption (often from tech, data and AI-powered players). If you slow down, Amazon will eat your lunch, so the argument goes.
3 Bandwagon effect
Senior execs say the world is speeding up – and so it becomes normal to say the world is speeding up. Everyone is breathing everyone else's exhaust fumes. Besides, it sounds complacent to say “things are much the same-constant change”; nobody wants to be seen as that.
4 The distorting lens of Big Tech
Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Samsung, Twitter, Uber, etc., are locked in a struggle to keep us using their services many times a day. Change in Big Tech is Darwinian and the winners constantly innovate to keep their users hooked. Markets that can be converted into (and distributed as) digital data – such as music, gaming video, bookings of all types – will continue to change fast. Because this happens every day as we prod the icons on our smartphones, it distorts our view of the wider world. But not all markets are moving fast because humans have ingrained habits and are highly social animals. We like to see and be seen. We like to touch and smell fruits and vegetables. Marketplaces are social spaces. People who live alone – a number that will increase over the next decade – will want to get out of the house and see faces and not just receive a drone delivery from Amazon.
What people want is convenience (making things easy to buy and use); flexibility (not being locked in); good value and the best price; being treated like an individual and not a target audience.
5 Cyber-utopianism under attack
Many people in tech believe we are living in a new time where old rules don’t apply. Unmoored from a sense of perspective, they dream about how machine learning (in which many have big investments) will usher in a new world. “The year zero narrative” – as Paul Feldwick called it – fuels exciting (or fearful) stories to grip our imagination about possible futures. Yet the ultra-liberalism that underpins Big Tech is coming under attack and the legislators are at last catching up. The fiction that Google and Facebook are just technology platforms (and not publishers) is evaporating. They are doing something very old-fashioned; hiring people to monitor what is being posted. Protectionism is a factor too. The Germans have never been happy to see their (ancient) print industry destroyed and will agitate for greater regulations across Europe. Big Tech will just not be free to ‘Move Fast and Break Things’ as Jonathan Taplin says in the title of his new book, and that will slow things up.
6 Are all markets being disrupted by new challengers?
The web has made it easier to create a company – with much excitement about the transformational potential of Airbnb and Uber-type start-ups. Look more widely at markets and a different story emerges. The Economist pointed out (26.03.16) that far from opening the floodgates to disruptors, we are seeing consolidation in many markets: across 900 sectors, two-thirds became more concentrated between 1997 and 2012. The likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google have been great disruptors but as they become more powerful, they can cool the pace of change by spending their (large) cash reserves on defending patents, lobbying and buying out insurgents before they represent a threat. The Economist sees the market as “rigged in favour of vested interests” – the precondition for controlling prices and competition and slowing the pace of innovation and market disruption.
7 Is AI the big disruptor we have been waiting for?
This is the argument put by the tech evangelists. AI has already been integrated into many services we use today (improved search results on Google, translation services, facial recognition on Facebook, and predictions of what you will be interested in buying on Amazon or viewing on Netflix), but it is not yet causing massive disruption. AI is nothing like, for example, the arrival of the railways in the 19th century, which transformed our identity, such as where we live, take our leisure, work and sell our goods and services. AI probably will change our lives, but much like the railways, it could take 50 years. I don’t expect AI to give us self-driving cars on our streets anytime soon in spite of the hype.
8 Short versus long-term
My experience of working in tech is that we overestimate short-term change and underestimate it in the long-term. Google how mobiles looked in 2007; they seem to come from another era and Nokia was the dominant brand. Today, many of us carry a small super computer (aka a smartphone) and navigate the world with location-based apps.
So, what should you do about change? How should you plan for it in your business?
Successful tech entrepreneurs have useful advice on how to manage change rather than be blindsided by it. When I was at Google, we lived by Larry Page’s mantra: “start with the user, and all else will follow.” Jeff Bezos said something similar. He advises us to think about what is not going to change (people’s needs) and put our resources and innovation into that. Page and Bezos don’t start with technology; they start with the largely immutable nature of human beings. What people want is not a mystery. They want convenience (making things easy to buy and use); flexibility (not being locked in); good value and the best price; being treated like an individual and not a target audience. And from there onwards, add the aspects of human nature that are most relevant to your market.
Amazon’s restless innovation: delivery by tomorrow, delivery today, delivery by drone, serves our lazy, impatient and convenience-seeking selves. In a decade’s time, we will still be lazy and impatient, but Amazon will have found a better way to serve this side of our nature. The trick (mostly) is to identify what people want and then be not too far ahead of them, because we find it easier to evolve than adopt completely new behaviours. This is called the MAYA principle (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) as articulated by the American designer Raymond Loewy. He sought to create the most advanced design, but not more advanced than what people were able to accept and embrace. He believed that: “The adult public's taste is not necessarily ready to accept the logical solutions to their requirements if the solution implies too vast a departure from what they have been conditioned into accepting as the norm.”
And the effect of this philosophy? Not change of ‘staggering velocity.’ Rather ‘constant evolutionary change’, which viewed in the longer term, can amount to a revolution. That was certainly the story of the railways and looks likely to be the story for AI.
Julian Saunders was Strategy Director, Ogilvy and Head of Strategy, McCann-Erickson and has worked on behaviour change campaigns for the UK Government and on innovation in The Zoo at Google. He blogs at www.joinedupthink.com