If you attend enough business conferences or listen to enough business experts, you’re bound to hear a recurring message delivered with varying degrees of force and menace, that the world is changing so fast, we’re all in danger of falling off.
In particular, there’s a rapidly expanding herd of self-styled “futurists”, “change specialists” and “trend experts” who, while frequently blessed with the gift of compelling rhetoric, tend toward a scare-mongering line of argument, which unsurprisingly serves their own ends.
Their presentations will be littered with phrases such as “in today’s fast-changing world”, as if it wasn’t always, and “in the Vuca environment of today” (Vuca being an acronym for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous), as if our particular era is somehow unique.
They will predictably present an end-game scenario which will reference Blackberry, Kodak, Barnes & Noble and the litany of the corporate extinct as proof that change is rapid, unbridled and utterly consuming.
It’s gripping stuff, and it thrills younger members of the audience because they lack the protective talisman of experience, which on reflection rather disproves the argument.
The clues to the falsity of most such technological futurism pervade the very structure of the conference itself, which consists of people sitting in a room watching another person on a stage, deliver a PowerPoint-assisted presentation just as we all did in 1998.
To accentuate the point: we still can’t seem to get video to play effectively in a live-environment.
Let’s not get confused. Change is happening. Technology is enabling a range of new achievements and creating whole new areas of advancement within the workplace.
More than that, advances in technology are accelerating, just as they have done throughout history, and there are absolutely, unquestionably disruptive technologies, trends and ideas all around us.
Business leaders should therefore be aware of the changes that surround them, and apply an active curiosity to those that promise or perhaps threaten to disrupt their own world.
That would seem to fall under the category of business common sense.
What is more important than being aware of change however, is not to panic about it. While we know the names of many organisations that failed by not changing fast enough, there may be a significantly higher number that ran themselves into trouble by changing too fast, or by being too pioneering.
Richard Branson himself has spoken with relief about stepping back from his near misadventure of adding Google Glass to the first class cabins of his aircraft in a quest to enhance the customer experience.
That’s to say nothing of the current futurist technology favourites: augmented reality, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, anything to do with an app and the biggest panic-inducer of them all: Block Chain.
Each of these is an exciting new technology area that has the potential to solve a problem, improve a process or enable something entirely new.
Virtual reality as an example is often touted as having significant potential in areas such as new employee induction and training, and if anyone can figure out how to marry these things in a practical way, they might have a winning idea.
Until that time, which is neither right now, nor especially looming, it’s a safe bet that the overwhelming number of people reading this article have never put on a virtual reality headset they didn’t experience at a gaming conference or that they didn’t receive free with the purchase of a Samsung phone back in the day.
Precisely the same real urgency surrounds Block Chain.
You probably know it as the philosophical framework that underpins crypto currencies such as Bitcoin, but beyond that you may not understand it at all, much less how to apply it.
It’s an absolute certainty however that your lack of a Block Chain strategy is a matter of irrelevance and will likely continue to be so until a still-distant point in the future.
The deal we should be making with ourselves when it comes to truly disruptive technologies is to study them with interest, not panic, and if we must prepare our businesses for them at all, to focus on minimising their disruption.
We don’t do that with a futurist’s outlook. We do it by adopting the mindset of a nostalgist.
The challenge of change isn’t so much that things become different, but that we have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
We live in a world where a software update, intended to improve a process, often brings with it a complete destruction of your organisation’s comfort zones because we fail to recognise that an improvement tweak and a wholesale change are not the same thing.
As a futurist is there to prepare you for a future of disruption, a nostalgist should be there to protect you from your engulfing your organisation in a frenzy of insanity.
A nostalgist’s role is to become expert on the way things are right now, examining your processes and policies and ways of being with a view to protecting the best of how you are.
Whether it is a person or an entire Department of Nostalgia sitting in the middle of your organisation, their role is to ensure that the changes you make work practically with the ways you are when you’re successful.
They’re there to fiercely defend the organisation against unnecessary self-inflicted trauma.
They’re there to call a spade a spade when the change specialists try to convince you that all change is good change.
The future is coming. Change is a given. And some of it will be really great for you.
In a sane world however, the role of the business leader isn’t to adopt change quickly, but to be sure you don’t blow everything up when you embrace it.
- Colin J Browne is a technology thought leader and author of Building a Happy Sandpit.