Dis­rup­tions com­ing your way

Dis­rup­tions come even with­out tech­no­log­i­cal change. It’s the way life is.

Business World - - OPINION - A. R. SAM­SON A. R. SAM­SON is chair and CEO of Touch DDB. ar.sam­son@ya­hoo.com

It seems that ev­ery con­fer­ence you at­tend that has to do with how the fu­ture will look like all warn about dis­rup­tion. The mes­sage is sim­ple. The busi­ness you are ex­celling in is about to be ob­so­lete. And if you’re still not un­com­fort­able with that, there are bul­let points to make your heart beat faster. The clichés come fast— adapt or die; what got you here won’t get you there; those still in their cribs will steal your jobs.

The Cassandra warn­ings are ur­gent. And who are the ben­e­fi­cia­ries of this com­ing apoca­lypse? They’re also in the au­di­ence and they’re the ones ask­ing ques­tions in the open fo­rum — are you us­ing quan­tum math for big data dives? (Can you re­peat the ques­tion please?)

There are con­sul­tan­cies in­volved in risk man­age­ment and an­tic­i­pat­ing worst case sce­nar­ios. This field is now called “fu­ture-proof­ing,” in­sin­u­at­ing that the fu­ture can some­how be treated like rust with the right prod­uct to pre­vent it. (Bring it on!)

Who can for­get the Y2K bug less than 20 years ago? It spawned ex­pen­sive con­sul­tan­cies on the premise that the com­put­ers would re­set all the data to 1900 when the mil­len­nium was crossed to cause plane crashes, stalled el­e­va­tors, and lost bank files. The big­gest sur­prise was that noth­ing hap­pened. And coun­tries like Rus­sia that dis­re­garded the whole flop racked up huge sav­ings on Y2K con­sul­tancy costs, and had the last laugh.

In the grow­ing cli­mate of an­tic­i­pat­ing dis­rup­tions, there is panic in cor­po­rate hall­ways. And the new re­cruits are smil­ing too, which makes the sce­nario even more chill­ing — are you with the com­pany, or just de­liv­er­ing piz­zas?

A TV net­work ex­ec­u­tive in one sem­i­nar ( just last week) de­clared proudly that upon tak­ing over, he in­tro­duced a cul­ture where the newly hired ( let’s call them mil­len­ni­als) now get to ap­prove what shows will be de­vel­oped for the pipe­line. The se­nior ex­ec­u­tives ( let’s call them old goats) sit in the back so their fa­cial ex­pres­sions and body lan­guage can­not be un­ob­served. Gasps and head-shak­ing are the usual re­ac­tions.

Can mil­len­ni­als who con­sider TV ir­rel­e­vant and do not even watch it be al­lowed to de­cide its fate? The TV ex­ec­u­tive in­toned that the new cul­ture is more hos­pitable to mis­takes, as long as the rook­ies don’t make a ca­reer of it. In his book, Messy, Tim Har­ford cites com­pa­nies that en­cour­age ex­per­i­ments that even­tu­ally fail. But he warns that com­pa­nies should fail fast and fail cheaply. A burial cer­e­mony for fail­ures is cel­e­brated with drinks, along with ex­tract­ing the les­sons learned.

The prophets of doom de­clare the ir­rel­e­vance of cur­rent man­age­ment (this is what dis­rup­tions do) as well as the present ways of think­ing like mak­ing a profit and hav­ing cus­tomers who pay for your ser­vice. This tra­di­tional ap­proach is in its ter­mi­nal stage. The mak­ing-sure-one-is­not-ren­dered-ob­so­lete at­ti­tude seeps through cor­po­rate think­ing now. In mil­len­nial par­lance, this is called FOMO (Fear of Miss­ing Out).

Will the present cul­ture of cau­tion pre­vail? Com­mand and con­trol are pre­scribed. We have large in­ter­nal au­dit and se­cu­rity de­part­ments in our struc­tures. Com­pli­ance units es­pe­cially for listed com­pa­nies are now re­quired. Is this way of do­ing busi­ness and sti­fling in­no­va­tion and loud voices go­ing to con­tinue?

The mantra of “adapt or die” has been in­voked be­fore. It’s not just the in­fa­mous Y2K scare but count­less other prophe­cies from con­fer­ences were aimed at sow­ing fear. Did tele­con­fer­enc­ing elim­i­nate meet­ings, es­pe­cially the need to travel abroad? Has telecom­mut­ing elim­i­nated the need for of­fices? Is the e-book go­ing to elim­i­nate book­stores? (Okay, that one re­ally kicked in.)

As in all prophe­cies of doom, the present way of do­ing busi­ness is not al­to­gether aban­doned, nor even di­min­ished quickly. The new technology is em­braced and in­cor­po­rated with the old one. TV will con­tinue to co­ex­ist with mo­bile con­tent, just as in the fifties un­til now, movies sur­vived free TV.

In declar­ing the ones run­ning or­ga­ni­za­tions now as di­nosaurs, it is worth not­ing that those large lizards lived for a hun­dred mil­lion years. And their de­scen­dants like birds still fly the skies. Their fos­sils in mu­se­ums still draw the largest crowds.

Any­way, dis­rup­tions come even with­out tech­no­log­i­cal change. It’s the way life is. And if one doesn’t adapt? Well, the other op­tion is not re­ally to die but to sit back… and en­joy the show.

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