Disruptions coming your way

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AR Samson

Fence Sitter


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-is-not-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.

A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.