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Future of Work: Disruption with a Capital "D"

Beginning in the early 1990’s books like Crossing the Chasm, Good to Great, The Innovators Dilemma and many more created an industry around helping entrepreneurs become disruptors while also helping larger and more established companies avoid disruption. Business leaders have been told time and again that if they are the big kid in their industry they need to be vigilant against the threat that small innovators pose.

The story goes something like this: Two people in a garage come up with a better inkjet printer. The big technology companies don’t pay attention because it is a low margin business. However, over time these two entrepreneurs grow out of their garage, get a fancy new office space loaded up with free food and video games in San Francisco’s Mid-Market district and begin developing more sophisticated and higher margin products. This small innovative start-up then begins to sell these more sophisticated and higher margin products through the relationships they built while selling lower margin products. This means that they are now competing head to head with the large established companies in their most important accounts and in their highest margin business. The large established technology company has been “disrupted”.

This is one story of disruption, but it is not the level or kind of disruption that I am referring to in this book. The type of disruption described in books like The Innovators Dilemma is disruption with a lower case “d”; it is disruption that happens to companies. The type of disruption that I am referring to is epochal. It is Disruption with a capital “D”. It ranks right up there with the discovery of fire, the collapse of the Roman Empire, The Age of Discovery, the Industrial Revolution and others. It is not about two guys in a garage who develop a new inkjet printer and cause tons of pain for IBM. It is a story about how machines are gaining a level of intelligence and sophistication that will threaten our very status as the “apex” animal at the top of the food chain. It is story of Disruption that will see each and every one of us, and every single company, scrambling to find ways to add value and generate income as machines continue to chip away at our “unique value proposition”.

As I researched this book one of the things that really stood out was that at each technological inflection point throughout history, when innovation was just about to cause significant disruption within an industry, those in that industry generally did not see it coming. Not because they lacked insight or intelligence, but because the technology that existed just prior to that point did not exhibit the sophistication needed to replace their jobs and so people did not have the technological insight to understand how fast the sophistication and quality of the technology would increase. Or to put it another way; Time and again history shows us that humans fail to accept that a machine will one day be able to do their job better then they can. And failure to accept that we are vulnerable causes us to be apathetic towards, and to lack a sense of urgency around, the need to transform and reinvent ourselves and our businesses.

Even if some people in the past had an inkling that they would possibly at one point be replaced by a machine (or software program) most were still unable to envision what would come after. If you have only a vague notion that a technological change is coming it is hard to imagine a world beyond that thing that you don’t know is going to happen.

Think about it this way; 25 years ago in 1989 the Internet was invented, but it wasn’t really until Netscape launched the first web browser in December of 1994 that it began to penetrate the mainstream. So for most people, and businesses, the Internet has only been in use for 20 years. But in 1988, just one year before the Internet was invented 99.99% of individuals and business leaders not only didn’t see the Internet coming but had no idea how drastically “everything” would be different in just a few short years. Even in 1994 when Netscape was launched only a few people imagined that in one generation we would be able to upload a picture or video to the cloud and with a simple click of a button “broadcast” that instantaneously to thousands or millions of people in our social and business network for free, or that we would be able to “face time” with our family in New York while sitting on the beach in Australia, or that a company would be able to communicate with its global supply chain in real time.

Or take cell phones as another example: Cellular technology was invented in the early 1970’s but did not begin to have an impact until after the first cellular network was launched in 1983. And even though driving around using your “car phone” was a really cool thing to do in 1985 you wouldn’t have thought that the dumb phone in your hand that had horrible sound quality and dropped calls incessantly would in 20 short years be a “smart” phone that would talk to you, give you directions, allow you to book flights and hotel rooms, and take pictures and watch music videos; or that you would be able to remain continuously connected to your global sales force; or that your health care provider would be able to monitor your blood pressure remotely in real time.

The point I am making here is that many of the technologies that are at the heart of our economy today, and which are now fully integrated into all of our lives and businesses, did not even exist 30 years ago. And just as significantly, only a handful of people even imagined them existing back then.

But here is the rub: Most of us reading this book have taken economics 101 and understand the basic theory that as jobs disappear in one industry they will be replaced with new and different jobs in other industries. That is the way it has always has been and economic theory is based on it. But what some are beginning to think is that this economic theory might not survive the test of the next 20 years, or even the next 5 years.

But why would it change? The short answer is because we are quickly moving away from a time where large amounts of human input will be required in the creation, production and distribution of products and services. A great example of this is the video game industry. Not so very long ago I had a Nintendo set top box that connected to my television. To play a game I had to go to the store and buy a game cartridge. The supply chain to get both that set top console and game into my hands was global and required massive amounts of human input to design, manufacture, package, ship and sell. Today a video game can be developed in a loft studio in Finland by a couple of designers and programmers and then delivered digitally over the web directly to my phone. The inefficiencies (i.e. people) of the “old” supply chain have been removed from the process. No more manufacturing plants assembling the cartridges and set top boxes, no more box manufacturers supplying the packaging, no more shipping and no more retail clerk swiping my credit card and putting my purchase in a bag.

And while that is significant and revolutionary in a historical sense things are about to get even crazier because we are very close to the point where that same dynamic will occur with physical goods that aren’t consumed digitally. The interim innovative disruption will be that a shirt you want will be made by a robot and placed in a warehouse where more robots will put it on an autonomous vehicle (i.e. ships, planes and trucks) which will take it from the factory floor to a warehouse near you at which point a drone will pick it up and drop it on your doorstep.

But in short order even that will be disrupted and you will just order the designs for that same shirt and manufacture it on your 3D printing press thereby cutting out 99% of the supply chain. And even just slightly further in the future the high value “design” of that shirt will be done by a software algorithm that offers design suggestions by compiling and analyzing all of your past buying habits, your current job, where you live, your income, your tastes in food, your favorite vacation spots and everything else that marketers know contribute to your tastes in clothing and styles. So your clothes will be a truly personalized reflection of “you”. This is something that no human clothing designer on Madison Avenue can ever offer.

Each and every one of us need to realize that it isn’t that this innovative disruption with a capital “D” is just going to happen in the manufacturing industry, or the airline industry, or only to people whose jobs involve some basic task like pounding a nail or tightening a screw, but rather, we need to fully grasp that it will happen in every industry and at most jobs levels and that the pace of innovation and disruption is only going to accelerate from this point forward.

We need to find creative answers to what we face. The Way of the Navigator is an attempt to do that and to start a conversation around ways we can survive and thrive in this Age of Disruption and Complexity.

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