Toward the end of the 19th century, the biggest problem confronting the people of New York City was the massive amount of horse manure in the streets. In addition to its offensive odor and having to step carefully when crossing a street, there was a constant health hazard, especially in the hot summer months.
The city’s leaders wrestled with means to control it. Increasing the numbers of cleaning crews was insufficient. Among the proposals considered was putting limits on the number of horses allowed in the city. But that wasn’t practical. America’s most populous city, like all others, relied on horses to pull the carriages that conveyed passengers, and the wagons that delivered essential goods.
About the time the city fathers were at wit’s end, their problem was solved in a totally unexpected way: The arrival of the internal combustion engine and mass-produced automobile. Within a decade or so, nearly all horses – and horse manure – disappeared from the streets of New York, replaced by horseless carriages. Problem solved.
Ethernet goes *poof*
In a similar vein, beginning in the early to mid-1990s, owners of older office buildings scrambled to retrofit their structures with miles and miles of Ethernet cable to accommodate the need to connect all desktop computers to the Internet and local area networks. Yet, despite the massive investments in money and man-hours, within a decade, the need for Ethernet was virtually eliminated with the advent and widespread adoption of WiFi.
Both these circumstances point up a core irony of technology: While we all welcome the capabilities and conveniences that technology gives us, at the same time it is not something that we can foresee and easily anticipate, and it’s nearly impossible to plan for.
Consequently, no matter how prescient we may think we are as a society, it is beyond human power to foresee the effects that an unimagined technology might have on our lives, our infrastructures, and our businesses. Yet, we must be ever alert to disruptive technologies, ready to reinvent our business model – not merely in an imitative fashion but rather proactively to stay ahead of the development curve, as well as the competition. And then, we must be prepared to do it again, and again.
How do we account for changes that we cannot comprehend needing decades or even years hence? If we couldn’t anticipate the horseless carriage and WiFi less than 10 years before they became available and widespread, how are we going to foresee the next unknown technological leap and accommodate it accordingly? Thinking about business, how can we plan for and incorporate the necessary changes that we cannot possibly know?
The short answer is, we can’t
Short of hiring a full-time staff clairvoyant, we must approach unknown change with open, inquiring minds, recognizing that today’s decisions work best within the confines of today’s world. In thinking through critical decisions, in weighing the pros and cons of one choice versus another, are we adequately considering the future’s unknowns?
The “what if’s” that we bandy about can come back to haunt us. Those decisions that involve multimillion-dollar capital investments must be made in the context of a discrete timeframe, fully cognizant that even that could shift quickly if something as momentous as the invention of the mass assembled automobile comes along to wipe the slate clean.
Imagine being the executive team that made the decision to invest a billion dollars in a new factory to manufacture a product that then becomes obsolete before the factory can even be amortized. Ouch.
Our planning window of opportunity shrinks as fast as our technologies advance. A 10-year planning window is a vanishing luxury – if it exists at all.
At its core, that’s what change is all about. That’s what we need to manage for, no matter the nature of our business. It means we must be nimble, responsive to rapidly changing circumstances, always open to new ideas and new ways of thinking about challenges, opportunities, and potential solutions.
It also means that we must be unafraid to discard the practices, policies and procedures that predate today’s technological advancements.