Playing what isn’t there

Miles Davis created his unique sound by “playing what wasn’t there”. He had an approach that used notes as signposts, not as instructions.

In the industrial economy, we played the notes. A whole industry was developed creating business plans, business qualifications, and consulting offers based around this approach. It worked really well as long as the assumptions that they were based on – replicability, repeatability, and the mantra of volume, scale and market share held true.

But increasingly, it doesn’t any longer.

We have seen exemplars of failure from Kodak to Borders, and more recently the iconic Radio Shack. They were all playing the notes, but increasingly, no-one was listening.

As the orthodoxies of the industrial economy gives way to the constructive chaos of the connection economy we need different skills. Less orchestra, more Miles Davis. More curiosity, less compliance.

There are a number of trends emerging that will accelerate the rate of change:

1. What can be automated, will be. The rise and rise on intelligent algorithms replacing jobs, professions, departments, and even whole businesses. Anything that can be reduced to a process. Computers just don’t care how complex the process is, and smart people can write the algorithms.

2. The obvious foundation of any business in a connection economy is people – not as labour, but as creators. The balance of power is shifting away from organisations and towards individuals and groups. People are looking for organisations that help them create what they are driven to create, no longer just as “jobs”.

3. Medium sized businesses are likely to become the powerhouses. Big enough to matter, small enough to be flexible, and more likely to have people in them – owners and members – with real “agency”. A sense of place, purpose and ownership, and without the sea anchors of demanding shareholders with limited agendas.

4. Old labels – from “talent” to “innovation” and “sectors” are less and less useful. The nature of the changes taking place are too complex for them to be useful. Some of the major changes taking place are happening across entire industries, creating whole new concepts and linking people and ideas in whole new ways. Here are four of the top 12 (thanks to Roger James Hamilton)

– Digital currencies

– Crowdsourcing and crowdfunding

– Materialisation – 3D printing

– Virtual reality – gamified connection.

The combination of all these trends is creating a chaotic environment full of opportunity. with new rules:

– To paraphrase the conventional wisdom of politics – “It’s the people, stupid!” Connection and technology can realise peoples ideas, but it can’t create them. Although qualifications and experience still count, they are no longer the currency of success. Creativity and connection are.

– Business plans are still useful, but no guarantee of success. They are a reference point at a given moment in time, and no more. Awareness, adaption and improvisation on the move – the  characteristics of effectual thinking are key, as against the causal thinking that has dominated our business education and training for so long.

– Communities of purpose – groups of people with shared values in pursuit of common goals – is the new scale. Whether as small businesses, or small teams within corporates – they are where the leverage is. The job of the organisation is becoming one of supporting and getting out of the way.

So, in the middle of all this – the good, no, the great, news is that you as an individual have never been so important or so empowered if you choose to be.

It requires two things – pursuing something important, a job as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and secondly, self belief and self development – constant learning. Genius is another one of those redundant labels – we all have aspects of genius within us, but it won’t show itself unless you give it the room.

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Dependence, Independence, Interdependence and Permission

Most of us are brought up to be dependent – on other’s approval, on “experts”, and to needing permission.

In the industrial era, it made sense, hierarchies were effective means of command and control, and compliance meant the difference between earning a living, or not.

As technology and social structures changed, we moved towards greater independence, often with money at the heart of it. Lifelong employment disappeared, and with it notions of loyalty and duty towards an employer, to be replaced by independence  for those who had marketable skills, or independent means. It gave us a sort of lonely freedom – not being governed, but without the work community that often provides support and meaning.

The most successful are now moving beyond this to interdependence – retaining all the options of independence, but choosing communities and “tribes” of those they choose to share their work and lives with. I work with a lot of fast growing businesses, and this feature – an interdependence with colleagues and clients – is a very visible feature. It gives them purpose, adaptability, flexibility and huge capability and attractiveness.

Many established organisations, and most of government, has not yet understood this. They pay lip service to it without understanding its implications. A dangerous place to be complacent. Those centralised institutions, from Head Office to Westminster, are becoming less and less important to those with the talent to create the future.

Adam Lent has written an excellent blog on the RSA site, which examines what 21st Century organisations might look like. In my view, worth the five minutes it will take to read.

The future is arriving faster than you think, whether you’re ready or not.

It offers immense opportunity, but won’t ask permission.