Stop Chasing The Last Big Thing

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Start Preparing for the Next One

Business in the digital age has become a seemingly neverending series of “next big things.” Whether it’s e-commerce, search engine optimization, social media, big data or something else, the pattern of firms struggling to adapt is as predictable as Gartner’s hype cycle.

First there is widespread panic, then a rushed effort to get up to speed by hiring consultants who are long on showmanship but short on merit. That’s soon followed by period of disillusionment as key expectations aren’t met and finally the “big thing” in question fades into the background as a fairly routine operating activity.

The problem isn’t that the trends aren’t important or that they lack impact—many have been transformational—but that the short term impact is often overestimated, while the long term impact is often underestimated.  What’s needed is what Rita Gunther McGrath calls a shift from “learning to plan” to “planning to learn” and a focus on skills rather than trends.

The Need For Basic Skills

Corporations spend an enormous amount on training, according to one study over $70 billion in the US and $130 billion worldwide.  Yet all too often, the emphasis is on narrow skills that will soon be out of date.  Business models rise and fall, software protocols change. Many “hot” digital strategies only last as long as Google and Facebook let them.

Yet as Fareed Zakaria argues in his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, there are some skills that never go out of style.  Clear and cogent writing, critical thinking and learning how to learn—to take in disparate facts, put them in context and express them clearly— are all crucial business skills that many businesses neglect.

Another overlooked area is math skills, especially with regard to statistics.  It’s ironic how much corporate executives harp on about the ability to be “data driven” and how few have the requisite skills to evaluate data.  I’ve often been amazed at how many senior strategy and analytics professionals don’t know simple concepts taught in a freshman statistics course.

True, these skills will not tell anyone how to optimize a social media campaign or operate a new piece of software, but it will help them learn for themselves, communicate with others and evaluate new trends effectively.  That, in the final analysis, is far more valuable.

Agility Trumps Strategy

Earlier generations could afford to follow trends, which emerged fairly slowly, giving firms time to retrain staff, retool factories and develop a new strategy.  These days, however, we live in an age of disruption, and most of the changes that happen are informational rather than physical.  As MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee have put it,we live in a world of scale without mass.

In an information driven world, many business processes are upgraded electronically, where they are replicated with perfect fidelity throughout an enterprise.  New startups like Cloudera, Palantir and Theranos become billion dollar companies at blazing speed and transform entire industries.  New protocols like Hadoop and Spark become standards within a few short years.

In this environment, it is not enough to bring in new resources and train employees on new skills.  More often than not, the change has to happen throughout the enterprise, not just one part of it.  Social media, for instance, was first seen as a marketing tool, but it soon became clear that to be successful, customer service and operations needed to be integrated too.

In effect, the key competitive attribute is no longer efficiency, but agility and that means that organizations today need to work with an unprecedented level of interoperability.  Most are not well set up for it.

The Rising Importance Of Empathy And Teamwork

Talk to just about any senior executive and they will tell you they are looking for top performers with specific skills.  Job descriptions invariably include a specific level of education, experience and accomplishment in those skill areas.  This, to all appearances, seems sensible and logical.  If you want to be a top performing organization, you need to have top performing people.

However, in Humans Are Underrated, author Geoff Colvin argues that this approach overlooks the reality of 21st century work.  Today, he points out, most of the important work is done not by individuals, but teams.  He also highlights research that shows that the best teams are not necessarily those that are made up of the most accomplished solo performers.

Rather, he argues, the best employees today are not accomplished “knowledge workers,” but “relationship workers.”  You no longer need the “smartest guys in the room, but the ones who can work the best together.  The most critical skill today, therefore, is empathy—the ability to discern what other people are thinking and feeling, and responding appropriately.

The need for empathetic relationship builders is even more crucial when you take into account the need for agility.

Building The Ark Before The Storm

Darwinian evolution is a commonly used metaphor in business circles.  It is used to convey the idea that only the strongest survive and therefore firms that are efficient operators can weather any storm.  That, however, is a grave misconception.  In fact, it is often the ones that are most highly focused on the present environment that are most likely to go extinct.

The reason is that when calamity strikes—a rapid environmental change, a new predator or whatever—the only ones that can survive are those that already have adaptive traits already in their gene pool.  In effect, you need to build the ark before the storm.  Once your business is disrupted, it’s too late to build the skills you need to adapt.

Over the next ten years, we will likely see more change than in the last hundred.  Our technology will be 100 times more powerful and there will be a Cambrian explosion of new business models and software protocols.  Many of today’s jobs will disappear and most of the biggest companies will be ones we haven’t heard of yet.

Nobody knows what the future will bring or what specific skills we will need to thrive. Yet a few things are abundantly clear.  We will need to understand data, derive insights, communicate ideas cogently and work effectively in teams.   These are the traits we will need in our DNA when the storm comes.