An article made the online rounds recently titled The Disruption Myth. Its basic premise was that currently dominant businesses are more resistant to change than might be expected, that the peak of digital innovation lies in the past, now stifled by big corporations, and the benefits of new economics are, therefore, overblown and unlikely to impact our lives for the better to any significant degree.
Don’t you believe that for a tick.
This is my third tech revolution and in each, richly endowed pundits have declared the emerging technologies deficient, delusional, defunct. And, in each revolution, those pundits have been wrong. These current downbeat predictions about the social/mobile revolution are wrong, too.
Here’s why: This tendency to declare the game over while we are still warming up for it stems from some fundamental misunderstandings of how tech revolutions and change actually work.
First, as much as we might expect and want it to, technological change doesn’t occur arithmetically. If only each little change led to another change and to another in a neat, consistent, straight-line chain. In reality, though, tech change is epochal, following a course more like evolution. In evolution, everything appears to stay the same in an environment until the sum total of challenges to species in it passes a critical threshold and then change happens dramatically, deeply and suddenly. So, too, with tech revolutions. Everything in business and society seems pretty much normal on the surface, and stays the same, and stays the same. And then, boom, everything seems dramatically different. PCs are a trinket until suddenly they are everywhere and touch everything. The Internet is a weird backwater full of flaming nerds and tap dancing cats until, suddenly, it is the lifeblood of culture.
In the Darwinian world of tech revolution, traditional businesses don’t disappear, they become extinct. New businesses, business models and economics don’t merely win, in the sense of a war, they conquer with the totality and finality of evolution. They rise rapidly and inexorably in response to radically altered circumstances, wiping out those who cannot adapt utterly off the map. It’s the death of the dinosaurs in business and cultural terms.
A McKinsey report on competing in the digital age stated the situation starkly: “Digitization often lowers entry barriers, causing long-established boundaries between sectors to tumble. At the same time, the 'plug and play' nature of digital assets causes value chains to disaggregate, creating openings for focused, fast-moving competitors. New market entrants often scale up rapidly at lower cost than legacy players can, and returns may grow rapidly as more customers join the network.
“Digital capabilities increasingly will determine which companies create or lose value. Those shifts take place in the context of industry evolution, which isn’t monolithic but can follow a well-worn path: new trends emerge and disruptive entrants appear, their products and services embraced by early adopters. Advanced incumbents then begin to adjust to these changes, accelerating the rate of customer adoption until the industry’s level of digitization—among companies but, perhaps more critically, among consumers as well—reaches a tipping point. Eventually, what was once radical is normal, and unprepared incumbents run the risk of becoming the next Blockbuster. “
Why does change happen this way? The big reason is human beings. Humans both crave and fear change and we are the great rationalizers of the animal world. As my great mentor Bill Ziff used to say, “Our rationalizations are every bit as strong as we are.” So, humans will both change and deny we are changing with equal vehemence. And the edifices we create—companies, political institutions, media—will do the same.
Another key reason for these dramatic shifts is that technological change, being environmental, works under the surface. It is like erosion at a beach. You don’t see it on the smooth sand. But deep down, the waves are pounding, grinding, shifting, penetrating until one day – Phooomp! The surface collapses and the whole coastline transforms.
This creates a phenomenon noted by Bill Gates during the PC revolution. When it comes to deep tech change, he said: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction.”
Business and society have been through a number of tech revolutions over the past several decades, so why do these errant dismissive predictions keep happening? Why don’t we learn from our recent experience? Again, the reason lies in human nature. Humans are impatient. We peek. We read ahead. We want to know how the story comes out. In tech terms, this means that whenever we experience something fundamental and new, we immediately project a future for this innovation. And then we begin to think and act as if that fictional future were a fact. A therapist friend of mine called this acting in FEAR: Future Events As Real.
When actual events don’t line up with our chimerical presumptions, we are confounded and disappointed. Surely, the fault can’t lie with us! It must lie in the technology itself. It’s disappointing, deficient, derelict. And, in this way, we repeatedly build and then attack our own sand castles across cycles of much sound and fury, most decidedly signifying nothing.
As we mess around this way on the surface, deep below the real change is occurring, quietly, occultly, patiently. Until, without our fully recognizing it has happened, the familiar reality collapses, and its suddenly hollowed husk rolls away. And the new reality emerges, wet and glistening, toward its natural ascendency in a transformed future.
At that point we, being human, will insist we knew it was going to happen that way all along.
Related: A New Challenge to Disruption Theory