Speed, Lies and Bottlenecks
I have always admired Bertrand Russell. For me he is one of the last “Renaissance Men” to have lived. He studied mathematics and philosophy, learned multiple languages, traveled all over the globe and was socially and politically critical.
During an interview he mentioned that it was difficult for him to keep up with the changes in the world. To paraphrase Lord Russell: “It is hard for me to get used to the age of the atomic bomb.” If one of the last Polymaths had trouble keeping up, what chance do we have to keep up with the ever faster changes around us?
Speed of change
So, what kind of speed are we talking about here that people the likes of Bertrand Russell can’t keep up? Let’s look at a chart that perfectly demonstrates this speed:
This chart shows the speed with which the world is changing, by plotting the number of new patents filed through the years. An increase in patents does not *define* the speed of change, but it does *reveal* a change of pace in the grand scheme of things. There are many factors which might influence the number of patents filed per year; we live in a litigious society; the economic incentives are aligned differently than they were before, and we no longer value an austere lifestyle which was so prevalent in the best part of the last millennium.
Within modern organizations, there is a similar development. Organizations used to have an explicit social function. Kings and Queens offered protection through their castles. Schools and universities offered education to the rich and churches helped people to live a moral life. Since the industrial revolution however, the value of organizations has shifted towards serving larger audiences, cutting waste, and being more productive, removing themselves from their original social responsibilities to responsibilities towards shareholders and the all mighty dollar. I am not saying that this shift in values is bad, it has increased our general welfare tremendously, but it also came with a price.
Why did these values change? A significant factor for this realignment in values derived from ever more productive communication. Initially the printing press, which allowed replicating books and spreading ideas with minimal effort. Followed by the telegraph and telephone which allowed the transmission of information across large distances in a fraction of the time. And finally, the invention of the internet, unifying the limitless replication of ideas and text to be shared with the world in milliseconds.
Remember the previous chart plotting the number of patents a year in the US? Let’s look at another chart:
Looks familiar, doesn’t it? The chart above shows number of internet users in the world. Starting off relatively flat followed by an incredible increase from 2005 onward. Even though we see a great increase from 2005, the “internet revolution” already started around 1960 when the first packets of information were sent to and reassembled on another computer. In 1995, the internet really took off with the introduction and commercial use of the World Wide Web. Like the patent chart, the internet chart hints to exponential growth.
Thanks to the introduction of the internet, everything runs on software these days. Robert C. Martin has a tremendous presentation about this topic. The number of chips in devices follows a similar exponential trend as the trends we’ve seen in the previous graphs; where chips are embedded, software never fails to follow. This does not mean that every change is a technological one, it only means that it is a safe bet to bet on processes being optimized by either throwing software or hardware at a problem an hoping it gets solved. To cope with this ever-changing world and to give your company the chance to compete in an ever-digitalizing market your organization should own its lie.
Every organization who thinks of themselves as having a low delivery speed or is training behind the competition, tells themselves a fundamental lie, which is: “If we change now, we will miss out.” This lie comes in many forms; like: “We are not ready to change, when we reach point X …”. To the more nefarious: “We will lose money if we change now.”.
It is hard to comprehend exponential growth in the last two diagrams, and unfortunately the tech industry has taken advantage of this. Minor technical changes are marketed as “huge improvements”, while real breakthrough innovation is worked on in secret, hoping to disrupt the current market, outsmart competition, and make huge profits doing so.
Like the previous two charts, looking at the speed of change of almost every technology or science, their change is exponential. In a world where the speed of change drastically increases, companies cannot afford to maintain stagnant. Waiting a few years in 2022 is not the same as it was in 2000. Many organizations are starting to become aware of their lack of speed but lack the confidence to make significant adjustments to their business model or their IT department. The reason organizations often lack this confidence is often because of fear. Fear is the most potent enemy of change.
While young tech companies and financial institutions have taken over the general upper echelon of the ‘most valuable company’ charts, older companies are left to reinvent themselves. The challenge these old companies face is changing while retaining their brand’s value.
Competence kills fear
To become a thought leader and inspire people in your organization you should have a great idea and you should be competent. With the word ‘competent’ I mean the achievement of mastery, of craftsmanship towards a technology or practice. For example, if you are competent at web development, this means that you are a craftsman at bringing web applications to life. If you work in an organization and are actively increasing the user experience of your site, your company is competent in terms of web development. Being great at doing things eradicates fear in an organization. Better yet, it is very contagious within your organization. Fear bottlenecks change but competence and craftsmanship within an organization unblocks this bottleneck. Therefore, it is the fearless craftsmen and women that realize change is needed to keep up in a world that speeds up exponentially. And it is these people that look beyond the scope of their day-to-day tasks at work and elevate an organization to a higher level.