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Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year and again in 2018. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”
Remember when you were in grade school, and you’d stare at the clock on the wall hoping, wishing, the hands would move? (If you’re too young to remember analog clocks, just play along.) Time passed slowly, interminably, especially during mandatory reading time. Ugh. This. Day. Will. Never. End.
The older we get, the more we realize that school does, in fact, end, days do go by, and time even flies. It’s a realization borne of experience and maturity -- and science, believe it or not. James Broadway of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and UC Santa Barbara graduate Brittiney Sandoval say, “From childhood to early adulthood, we have many fresh experiences and learn countless new skills. As adults, though, our lives become more routine, and we experience fewer unfamiliar moments. As a result, our early years tend to be relatively overrepresented in our autobiographical memory and, on reflection, seem to have lasted longer.”
Well, there you go.
Despite that, we still can’t see the hands on the clock move. But what if we could? What if, through some shift in the time-space continuum, the minute hand suddenly started moving like the second hand? How would we react?
Third-graders being asked to memorize their multiplication tables (do they still do that?) would probably be thrilled, but I’m guessing the rest of us would panic. Especially at first. “There already aren’t enough hours in the day!” we’d exclaim. “Not I’m never going to get it all done!” we’d complain. “It’s all coming at me too fast!”
Once we catch our breath, however, I believe another thought might settle in: A powerful sense of prioritization. We simply wouldn’t be able to allow the urgent to crowd out the important. We’d realize how little we can actually get done and would more intentionally focus on that which would make the most difference. And in an odd way, we might even become sanguine about our lives. Coming to terms with the fact that we can’t do it all, we might re-evaluate our priorities and be at peace focusing on what’s most important.
Guess what? This isn’t just a metaphor. Time really has sped up, at least in terms of the economy. Every business, every industry is moving through the stages of disruption, acceleration, maturation, saturation and commoditization ever faster. At the end of this “Disruption Cycle” comes innovation (sometimes) or obsolescence (often). Those companies and industries that anticipate the future and adjust accordingly begin a new loop. Those that don’t, flop.
For most of the 20th century, the Disruption Cycle turned slowly, imperceptibly, like the hands on a clock. It moved so slowly that people could spend an entire career within one cycle. They didn’t even realize it was happening. It manifested itself in having one job (or at least one career) for life.
With the advent of the technological revolution, however, it became not uncommon to experience multiple Disruption Cycles over the course of a single career. In the retail world, for example, brands today have to reinvent themselves faster than ever. Gap has found itself on the downslope of late, about which one analyst quipped, “While the market is moving forward, Gap is, at best, standing still.”
Once high-flying H&M is also in the doldrums as it struggles to match the distribution muscle of online retailers, the pricing appeal of aggressive discounters and the product iteration of competitors with faster and more flexible sourcing models.
More broadly, some consider the advent of artificial intelligence as a death sentence for entire classes of workers. I am not in that camp. I don’t believe AI will make humans obsolete for the simple reason that time and money have always been in limited supply. The more of each that are returned to us because of technological advances, the more we will be able to reinvest them in meeting as-yet-unmet needs and wants -- two things of which human beings will never run out.
After all, there are more jobs today than ever before in human history because there are more humans than ever before. That means more wants, more needs and more human ingenuity that is being applied to both.
But that doesn’t mean we don’t have issues. The rise and fall of industries has always resulted in worker displacement, from horse-and-buggy-whip makers to typist pools. In past ages, however, business models became outmoded slowly and sporadically, allowing the gradual reabsorption of displaced workers into new occupations. For most of human history, sons and daughters almost invariably followed in the occupational footsteps of their fathers and mothers. Today, however, none of our careers are safe from rapid obsolescence -- perhaps more than once over the course of our working lives.
I was leading a seminar about this recently and was struck at how readily the participants nodded in agreement. They, like me, can almost feel the breeze of the Disruption Cycle as it spins us around like a turbocharged Ferris wheel. Yet when I asked these professionals -- who were all in senior management -- what strategies they were implementing to stay ahead of the inevitable, all I received in return were blank stares. I couldn’t tell if it was fear, nausea or a flashback to third grade when they could bury their heads in their hands and make the world disappear. Whatever the case, denial won’t do.
What will? Well, a little panic is understandable. But once you realize how unproductive that is, better to reflect and reprioritize. Better to think a step (or two) ahead and anticipate the coming disruptions. Better to be the disruptor rather than the disruptee.
For the first time in history, it now does pay to keep our eyes on the clock. The sooner we realize those hands are spinning with increasing velocity, the better and more nimbly we can anticipate change and respond to it -- or even lead it. We may have all graduated from grade school, but the test-taking never ends. And in this economy, there’s no grading on the curve. It’s pass/fail.