Three lies to blame for misunderstanding this century

Notes from a sceptic: why have such few companies actually unleashed new thinking?
University Putra Malaysia professor Mohamed Thariq holds pineapple leaves and a drone partially made with pineapple stems, in Jenjarom, Malaysia December 12, 2020. Picture taken December 12, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

We are consumed by the idea that these times are wildly unpredictable to the point of danger, and talk a lot about the frenetic pace of the modern world.

Common wisdom dictates that large companies need to act small, we need to disrupt or die and that radical business transformation is essential to not only survival, but untold riches. It is no surprise then, that about $2 trillion has been spent globally on digital transformation and the pursuit of innovation.

This would be great news except we see virtually no evidence of any real transformation in our daily lives anywhere.

Indeed, change has followed perfectly clear linear trend lines going back 20 years. Think about it: we buy stuff from the internet, watch TV via the internet and work via meetings hosted on the internet. Who could have possibly seen this coming?

Have airlines transformed their business for the modern age or have they just made a nicer looking app? Have retailers rethought what they manufacture to cater to the new behaviours of e-commerce? Or have they just slowly shifted to letting you buy things online?

Hotels may let you use a phone to operate an elevator, but won’t let you reply directly to their marketing emails. One is more helpful.

The big question right now, after decades of calm, is why so few companies have actually unleashed new thinking. We are fond of talking about innovation and the power of new technology, yet companies are spending more on share buy-backs than ever before. The glut in the capital markets for so-called tech firms has shrouded how little profound change or imagination exists in today’s business models.

(FILES) In this file photo obtained on March 16, 2020 courtesy of The National Institutes of Health(NIH)/NIAD-RML, shows a 3D print of a spike protein of SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19—in front of a 3D print of a SARS-CoV-2 virus particle.  It is not yet certain whether the new coronavirus variant discovered in Britain is more contagious, but the US is conducting studies to learn more, a top official said on December 21, 2020. - RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH/NIAD-RML/HANDOUT " - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

The American food delivery service DoorDash lost $149 million in the best nine months that will ever exist for a meal delivery app and is worth $50 billion. Airbnb is worth more than the five largest hotel chains in the world put together, despite never having two profitable quarters in a row. These two recent examples illustrate that money is desperate to find ideas to believe in and can’t.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has shown us that Dyson can make ventilators, Moderna can "design" a Covid-19 vaccine and China can build a vast hospital – all in a matter of days. Even British Airways found a fast way for its customers to contact-lessly order food in lounges, despite failing over 10 years to make a decent way to check in to flights.

The learning here is that it is easier for companies to make new things than it is to change, it is easier to do things on the edge not the core.

A drone, partially made with pineapple stems, flies at a pineapple plantation in Jenjarom, Malaysia December 12, 2020. Picture taken December 12, 2020. REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng

For me, three pervasive lies are to blame for our fundamental misunderstanding of the 21st century.

We’ve become obsessed that these times are faster changing than ever before, despite little evidence of this. Barbed wire changed the fortunes of America, the elevator allowed skyscrapers to thrust across the world, the car reimagined cities. We are accustomed to fast, radical change sweeping the world – yet in the last two decades we’ve seen remarkably little new happen.

We've become scared that these times are more complex than ever. That new companies and new technologies are combining together in ever more ways. That new combinations, permutations and insurgent mutations result. But it's just not that true. OK, 5G is a faster internet, and the Internet of Things, 3D printing and blockchain are complex in their construction but not necessarily in their meaning. Artificial intelligence is a marketing team for smarter computers, not a paradigm shift in how life works.

We have been convinced we live in more uncertain, more ambiguous, more volatile times. But there is little evidence for this.

We have a path in life that is rather easy to predict but the global pandemic of 2020 has not changed its direction, only its speed. We now face the almost inevitable world of 2025, a few years earlier.

I fear despite living and thriving in some of the most calm business and geopolitical times in history, companies have used the paranoia of change to react superficially. Businesses are generally oriented around climate not weather: the regular fundamentals of life, not the vicissitudes of storms or even freak rain, are what matter more to the bottom line.

Pidgeons gather outside the shuttered entrance to a John Lewis department store, closed down due to lockdown restrictions, on an empty Oxford Street as Britain enters another national lockdown in London on January 5, 2021. England's six-week lockdown, which began at midnight, emulates the first national coronavirus curbs in place from March to June -- but goes further than another instituted in November when schools remained open. Authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have all taken similar measures, putting the UK as a whole in lockdown.

We’ve been whipped up into a continual frenzy that’s ensured we’ve lost sight of what matters. We’ve used technology defensively, as a way to avoid the awkward questions from market analysts and large stakeholders – but not because we fell in love with what it made possible. Realistically, most chief executives don’t have the time or will or risk tolerance to really change things.

They need the appearance of change, they need plausible deniability and they spend billions on management consultants as insurance agents. Meanwhile, consultants make money from monthly retainers, and from delivering simple projects, over long periods of time. The incentives lie in always finding new problems to solve and never solving existing problems, merely keeping businesses in a perpetual state of behind-but-alive.

What we need now is both calmness and urgency. We need to love what technology can do, and embrace the incredible power it has to unleash incredible value for the world, for people and for the bottom line. We need to be imaginative and empathetic, future-focused and audacious.

This is not time to return to a new normal. It’s a pause to consider the future we wanted to build. The time to do that is now.

Tom Goodwin is founder of the consultancy All We Have Is Now and the author of Digital Darwinism