Why Focus on Disruption?


My post on the disruptive implications of the Autonomous Vehicle generated dialog that has been very insightful and provocative. Before posting additional analysis of the societal, economical, and environmental impact of emerging disruptive scenarios, I wanted to restate my reason for doing so, and share some great perspective from leaders that engaged in this recent dialog. I launched this last series to support the growing belief that: 1) we are entering what is likely the most transformative period in history, and 2) this should drive a sense of urgency for leaders everywhere. This coming period brings with it many possible disruptive scenarios, each with its own set of consequences. In my experience, leaders view these scenarios as too far off into the future to warrant their time – we’ve been conditioned to think short term. In their new book The Second Machine Age, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson provide their perspective on why the time to focus on the future is now. The three forces they describe (exponential, digital, and combinatorial) are perhaps the best description of the drivers behind the accelerating effect of disruption.

No one has a crystal ball, and many remain frozen by both the overwhelming number of possibilities, and the rapid pace of change. It is in every leader’s best interest to look at possible disruptive scenarios and their implications to world economies, our environment, and society as a whole. In a business context, revenue streams can “potentially” disappear as part of a disruptive scenario, and that potential grows more real every day. It behooves a business leader to look at other possible business models or sources of revenue, but for good reason, leaders are worried about committing to a technology or scenario that does not materialize. Leaders can mitigate this risk by positioning their organization to Operate in an increasingly uncertain world, while embracing strategies that provide a hedge against disruptive risk. In my opinion, the problem has more to do with status quo thinking then it does over committing to a given scenario.

I’ve been using the autonomous vehicle as an example of a disruptive scenario that has far reaching implications. Although illustrative, the compelling reason for action is not tied to this specific scenario, but the fact that the number of scenarios – driven by several forces including the three mentioned earlier – is likely to multiply. As this happens, the probability of disruption grows rapidly, creating a societal impact not seen since the First Industrial Revolution. So what has the dialog been like, and what do other leaders think? Here is a sample:

Jay Bitsack: V.P. ACORE II had this to say: “I agree with your assessment that we are entering what could be the most socially, economically, and environmentally transformative period in the history of mankind. One might even say that it carries the potential to surpass that of the industrial revolution; not so much because of the potential growth and elevated well-being it affords mankind, but rather because without substantive transformations in both thinking and behaving, mankind’s sustainable well-being is likely to be in serious jeopardy. I believe it’s not only the time, but also essential, that any focus on transformational/disruptive technologies be undertaken in the context of how they will likely play out against the stark realities of the current world situation.”

Jay also added: “The scenario based on autonomous (self-driving) automobiles is being posited as a truly disruptive technology (i.e., something that completely changes the thinking and behavioral dynamics within a socioeconomic system). I’m not so sure that is the case. How so? Well, if we take a page from M. Hammer’s gospel of reengineering, something that’s truly disruptive goes beyond being something that only fosters/generates a condition of “better sameness”. And having people travel in automobiles (albeit self-guided) strikes me as being just a matter of better sameness.”

John Payne: Principal PDE-USA had this to stay: “I’m not sure there is the political and societal will, courage and strength to look openly and honestly at the current reality and try to factor all the “bad” stuff – global climate change and income disparity (and many others) into the crystal ball gazing about the future.”

John also added: “I know that I am challenged to try to keep pace with all the change that is happening. Head in the sand is a much easier alternative: Not very productive, but easier. The task is getting our society and political process to recognize and accept that some of the aspects of the impending changes will be decidedly unpleasant. The longer we wait to begin the process of learning new behaviors, changing our lifestyles and acting on those unpleasant realities the harder it will be to meet those challenges. Most folks are dazed by the exploding technology and barely able to comprehend what is happening. We all know things are changing but are overawed and unable to grasp the direction things are going.”

Marcel Bullinga: Futurist Futurecheck.nl had this to say: “When I train education professionals, I take the self-driving car as a token of the 3d industrial revolution and ask them: how will this effect education? This way we dive into the slow trend of deskilling, which will deeply affect not so much how we learn but what we learn. It changes the core of our knowledge base.”

Marcel also added: “The massive stream of technology waves coming over us the next 15 years (the combination of 3d printers, robots and AI software) makes things cheaper (cars, houses, machines), lowers entry barriers (starting a company, getting education) and gives us access to the information & service level previously only millionaires could get. It means a boost in old crafts and a boost of craftsmanship. This will not lower income inequality as such, but it will give millions of people the means to earn enough income.”

Sudhir Desai Innovation Strategist, Principal – Living Enterprise had this to say: “I think the possibilities of technology developments are very interesting and should they pan out there are indeed significant impacts – from changing driving habits to massive structural changes in industries. But, I do not think, they are yet by any chance a given. Disruption is indeed harder than it sounds and futures and foresight are wicked challenges. One just has to read a book like “Imagining Tomorrow” to see how much we have imagined in the past about the possibilities of technology that has not panned out. Then technology is not the only driver of change. We need to consider all possible scenarios – just in case they happen.”

Sudhir also added: “I agree that leaders do not practice foresight enough and as a consequence could easily be led into making decisions that for example in this context are technology-driven, rather than by taking a balanced and holistic perspective. I do wish to see strategic leaders engage in conversations that prevent surprise. Imagine a company that invests heavily anticipating driver-less cars, and that future does not pan out. That would be very risky too.”

I appreciate this dialog with futurists and other leaders and look forward to on-going discussions. With this as a backdrop, the next post in this series will focus on autonomous vehicle-driven disruption in the Automotive ecosystem.

5 thoughts on “Why Focus on Disruption?

  1. One man’s disruption is another man’s opportunity.
    What is disruptive to one may be a mere inconvenience to another.

    One metric for the disruptive potential of the automated vehicle (AV) is to look at predicted money flows. Morgan Stanley estimated last year that AV technology could save the US $1.3 trillion/year, or 8% of GDP in 2012 terms. I think that this is an underestimate, but let’s roll with it.

    So roughly speaking, we can expect maybe 8% of the working population to see their jobs completely changed? Or maybe that’s 4% will lose their jobs and 8% see so much change that they will need major re-training? In Canada we have 1.5% of the working population driving a big truck – they are very likely to see disruption in their lives. Clearly some jobs will disappear, but may will be created. some lives will be disrupted, some lives will be enriched.

    In daily life we will see minor to major impacts in almost every aspect due to AVs. From how we travel, how and where we live and work, the price of goods in the shops, that we no longer need to own a vehicle etc. etc. Some of these changes are small, some major.

    For example: If you have a medical condition and are waiting for an organ or tissue donation then is it reasonable to think that the impact could be very disruptive? – the only figure that I could find (unreliable) suggested that some 90% of organ and tissue donors come from road fatalities, and that each donor gives to around 50 recipients. If AVs are as successful at reducing crashes as we hope then this source of organ and tissues will largely disappear – but then again, in the time this takes to happen it doesn’t seem unreasonable to expect major advancements in organ and tissue replication, 3D tissue printing etc. etc. So is this disruptive? Or simply a change in supply path which a flexible free market will comfortably accommodate?

    I do think from numerous conversations that the public sector seems to be less able to respond proactively to potential disruption from AVs than the private sector. This concerns me as huge sums are being committed to infrastructure and transit projects with operational and business model forecasts out many decades – and yet no due diligence is being carried out against impacts of AVs, or AVs as an alternative. Is this some form of normalcy bias? At what point will the risk/reward balance tip to allow the public sector to take action? Will this delay result in even greater disruption being offset and thus magnify its impacts when it does occur?

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