In which you'll learn:
Ice hockey is a game in which men the size of mountains hurtle across ice as fast as they can, in order to body-slam their opponents as hard as they can into the wall. To be good, you have to be very big, very strong and very fast. Wayne Gretzky wasn't.
And yet Gretzky was, and still is, the leading point-scorer in National Hockey League history. He is the only NHL player to score more than 200 points in one season. He did this four times. At the time of his retirement in 1999, he held 61 NHL records. He still holds 60 of them today. It is no exaggeration then, despite the fact he wasn't particularly big, strong, or fast compared to most hockey players, that he is the greatest hockey player ever.
This raises an important question: why? If Gretzky wasn't physically impressive, why was he so good?
There is a simple answer: Gretzky was able to anticipate where the puck was going to be and, as a result, be in the right place and do the right thing at the right time. Or, as he put it: “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”
We have a question for you: do you want to be good or great?
If someone asks, “Do you believe in evolution?” you would answer without thinking. But if someone asks, “Do you believe in extinction?” you would most likely stop and wonder.
Because while you probably like the idea of evolution—you believe it's what separates us from monkeys and our cave-dwelling ancestors—you probably don't like the idea of extinction. It makes us feel sad. It reminds us of what once was: dinosaurs, great auks, woolly mammoths, and dodos.
And yet, if you believe in evolution, you also have to believe in extinction. You have to believe that just as surely as new things come, so old things go—if they don't adapt. This is the part of Charles Darwin's theory that's often overlooked. This is from On the Origin of Species: “The theory of natural selection is grounded on the belief that each new variety, and ultimately each new species, is produced and maintained by having some advantage over those with which it comes into competition; and the consequent extinction of less favoured forms almost inevitably follows.”
What works in nature is also true for civilisations and businesses. As it was for megafauna like woolly rhinos and woolly mammoths, so it was for civilisations like the Roman empire, and for firms like Tower Records, Blockbuster, and Delta Airlines.
They all thrived for a time. But then circumstances changed. New predators, nimble competitors, and disruptive technology appeared. The traits which had once given them the edge weren't advantages anymore. And they went extinct.
So, the study of nature, civilization, and business provides a simple lesson—adapt or die—and asks two critical questions: how will things change in the future? And will the advantages you have today still serve you tomorrow?
Until recently, those questions weren't quite so critical. But, then, change isn't like it used to be. For most of human history, change was local and linear. It was limited by geography and the speed of communication. Hence, small steps.
But now, change is global and exponential. Technology has changed geography. Hence, instead of small steps—leaps and bounds. And we're taking those extremely quickly.
Welcome to “Extremistan”—the name philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb gives our era. Before, in the old world Taleb calls “Mediocristan”, history crawled. But now, it jumps.
Technology, and our separation from the physical, is a key factor here. Before the emergence of the gramophone, for instance, a singer's audience was constrained by how many people you could squeeze into a hall, or how many people could budge up and find space on a hillside. When Beyoncé released an album on Apple's iTunes, she reached 800,000 in the first three days. The album has now sold more than 5 million copies.
Futurist Ray Kurzweil makes sense of today's Extremistan with a law he coined in 1999, the Law of Accelerating Returns: “The first technological steps—sharp edges, fire, the wheel—took tens of thousands of years. For people living in this era, there was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years. By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required only a century or two. In the nineteenth century, we saw more technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, we saw more advancement than in all of the nineteenth century. Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years time.”
The evolution of culture may be speeding up. But we humans are still locked into plain-old, barely noticeable biological evolution. As a result, it's ever harder for us flesh-and-blood mortals to keep up. As The Economist observed: “The pace of technological change [is] making heads spin”.
New technology is affecting, for instance, what, where, when, and how we:
1. work — eg, the “anytime any place anywhere” Martini model of working
2. play — eg, virtual reality gaming, especially as enabled by Oculus Rift
3. travel — eg, Zipcar, Uber, mobile booking apps
4. communicate — eg, Facebook, Microsoft's Kinect, touch-screens, wearables and emojis ;-)
5. shop — eg, mobile shopping, Uber, drone deliveries
6. read — eg, Kindles, iPads
7. make decisions — eg, the algorithms that “commissioned” Netflix's House of Cards
8. manage our homes — eg, Nest and the internet of things
9. find love — eg, Match.com, Tinder, Tickr, and Waltzz
10. make war — eg, drone warfare
Another reason why change happens faster today than ever before is social media. In the classic study of cultural change, The Diffusion of Innovations, sociologist Everett Rogers examines the principal factors that determine how quickly ideas spread, and therefore how change happens. One is how ideas, information and inspiration are shared in a society. This is critically important for understanding change in the 21st century: in a hyper-connected world of the mobile internet—smartphones, wearables, Facebook, Instagram—ideas spread, and change happens, very quickly.
Until recently, for instance, new fashion ideas were disseminated by the select few at monthly glossy magazines. Today, they can be blogged, texted, tweeted, and Instagram-ed in an instant by almost anyone.
Or, think how quickly it takes in the 21st century for a brand to take-off, an innovation to be adopted, or a person to become famous. As people started to use find-a-cab apps, and workers flocked to the smartphone economy, so Uber's value soared: to $41 billion in under six years. If an obscure singer in South Korea had recorded a silly song and done a silly dance ten years ago, who knew? But in today's world, Psy's Gangnam Style is viewed 2.2 billion times. This is the sort of global, exponential change that is not only possible but also probable in the Facebook mediated world of Extremistan.
(NB: As the internet of things becomes reality, billions more devices will be always-on and continuously, automatically sharing information with each other and the system. This will spread ideas and change even quicker.)
How to respond? There are three choices.
1. Stick your head in the sand like an ostrich, and ignore it. (No one would admit to this, but we think quite a few people would secretly like things to stay the way they've always been. For good reasons: because that's safe, it's easy to understand that world.)
2. Act like a good hockey player: follow the puck and keep up with the pack.
3. Act like a great hockey player, and play where the puck is going to be: embrace change, work out what the future holds, and, rather than run with the herd, prepare for that future now.
(We'll assume you chose number three.)
People play all sorts of games to understand change and work out where it's taking us. Some of this work is mathematical. Some is pseudo-mathematical. Some is just made up. Really—there is a forecasting method called “visioning”.
No forecasting method is perfect. The plain truth is no one knows the future. Things will always change in unexpected ways. (No one forecast text messaging, for instance.) As the man who led the D-Day landings and victory in Europe, five-star general and US president Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, once said: “Plans are useless, planning is essential.”
We wouldn't quite say forecasts are useless (of course), but we agree that forecasting is essential—especially if you realise that a forecast is not a fact, it's a map. A good forecast, like a well-constructed model, roadmap, or beach-assault strategy, should provide enough information about the future so that you are able to plan. It will not mention every detail—every sight or bump in the road or enemy manoeuvre—but it will tell you when to turn left or right, it will give you ideas on how to get to your destination, and it will sketch out what it will look like when you get there.
A leader without one of these maps is like the general who stumbles and fumbles through the fog of war. But once you have a map and a futurist on your side, that fog clears a little, giving you a much better picture of the future, and a much higher chance of success.
A forecast of the future gives you two powerful things to think about.
One, is the future good, or not, for:
Two, if you keep doing what you do now, continuing on the path you're on, will you ride the wave to the future or be drowned by it?
Once you have the answers to these two questions, you can plan your response.
Either you work out how to gear up and be better prepared to surf the wave of the future: this could be rip-up-the-rulebook, disruptive change or simpler, incremental change.
Or you can nudge the future and change the curve of the wave:
With a good futurist on your side, you're more likely to create a strategy that's more robust, resilient, and useful. Armed with that, you will create better return for all stakeholders:
If you believe in better — in making more money, while creating a more positive, and more sustainable world — we'd love to help you. Click here to contact us.