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2022: Surviving Change

2022 January 2
by Greg Satell

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that “There is nothing permanent except change” and events over the past few thousand years would seem to prove him right. Yet while change may endure, the rate of change fluctuates over time. Throughout history, forces tend to cascade and converge on particular points.

By all indications, we are in such a period now. We are undergoing four major shifts in technology, resources, migration and demography that will be transformative. Clearly, these shifts will create significant opportunities, but also great peril. The last time we saw this much change afoot was during the 1920s and that didn’t end well.

Yet history is not destiny. We’re entering a new era of innovation in which our ability to solve problems will be unprecedented and can shape our path by making wise choices.  Still, as we have seen with the Covid pandemic, the toughest challenges we will face will have had less to do with devising solutions than with changing behaviors and conquering ourselves.

Building A Shared Understanding Of The Problems We Need To Solve

The first step toward solving a problem is acknowledging that there is one. Even before Covid skeptics came into vogue, there was no shortage of pundits who denied climate change. For years, many considered Alan Greenspan to possess sage-like wisdom when he asserted that markets would self-correct. In the end, even he would admit that he was gravely mistaken.

The truth is that we live in a world of the visceral abstract, where strange theories govern much of our existence. People can debate the “big bang,” deny Darwin’s theory of natural selection or even deride these ideas as “lies straight from the pit of hell.” Many agreed when Senator Marco Rubio asserted that these things have nothing to do with our everyday lives.

Still, the reality is that modern existence depends on abstract theories almost every second of the day. Einstein’s theories may seem strange, but if GPS satellites aren’t calibrated to take them into account, we’re going to have a hard time getting where we want to go. In much the same way the coronavirus doesn’t care what we think about Darwin, if it is allowed to replicate it will mutate and new, more deadly variants are likely to arise.

History shows that building a consensus to confront shared challenges is something that is firmly within our capability. The non-proliferation agenda of the 1950s led to concrete achievements such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty. When advances in gene therapy made the potential for danger clear, the Berg Letter called for a moratorium on the riskiest experiments until the dangers were better understood. These norms have been respected for decades.

Discovering Novel Solutions

Identifying and defining our challenges is just a first step. As Bill Gates pointed out, we still don’t know how to solve the climate crisis. Despite all the happy talk about technological advancement, productivity growth remains depressed. We’ve seen a global rise in populist authoritarianism and our inability to solve problems has surely contributed.

Put simply, we do not know how to overcome all of the challenges we face today. We need to innovate. However, innovation is never a single event, but a process of discovery, engineering and transformation. We can’t simply hope to adapt and overcome when a crisis hits, we need to innovate for the long-term.

Consider our response to the Covid crisis. Yes, the pandemic caught us off-guard and we should have been better prepared. But our most effective response wasn’t any of the emergency measures, but a three-decade effort that resulted in the development of mRNA vaccines. Even that was nearly killed in its cradle and surely would have been if it had not been for the dedication and perseverance of a young researcher named Katalin Karikó.

An emerging model taking hold is collaboration between government, academia and private industry. For example, JCESR is helping to create next generation technologies in energy storage, the Partnership on AI is helping to map the future for cognitive technologies and the Manufacturing USA Institutes, bring together diverse stakeholders to drive advancement.

Perhaps most of all, we need to start taking a more biological view of technology. We can no longer expect advancement to progress in an organized, linear way. We need to think less like engineers building a machine and more like gardeners who grow ecosystems to nurture new possibilities that we can’t yet imagine, but are lying beneath the surface.

Driving Adoption And Scaling Change

If there’s anything we’ve learned during the Covid pandemic is that developing a viable solution isn’t enough. Early measures, such as masking and social distancing, were met with disdain. The development of effective vaccines in record time was something of a miracle. Still, it was met with derision rather than gratitude in many communities.

This is not a new phenomenon. Good ideas fail all the time. From famous cases like that of Ignaz Semmelweis and William Coley to the great multitudes whose names are lost to history, any time a new idea threatens the status quo there will always be some that will seek to undermine it and they will do it in ways that are dishonest, underhanded and deceptive. If change is ever to prevail, we need to learn to anticipate and overcome resistance.

The good news is that it only takes a minority to embrace change in order for it to prevail. Everett Rogers found that it took only 10%-20% of system members to adopt an innovation for rapid adoption to follow. An analysis of over 300 political revolutions estimated that 3.5% active participation was enough. Other research suggests that the tipping point is 25% in an organization.

What we need is not more catchy slogans, divisive rhetoric or even charismatic leaders, but to empower movements made up of small groups, loosely connected but united by a shared purpose. My friend Srdja Popović provides great guides for social and political revolutionaries in both his book and his organization’s website. I have adapted many of these ideas for corporate and organizational contexts in Cascades.

Perhaps most importantly, as I recently pointed out in Harvard Business Review, is that transformation is fundamentally distinct from other stages of innovation. Coming up with a new idea or solution takes very different skills—and often different people—than driving adoption and scale.

Building A Bridge Through Shared Identity

Marshal McLuhan, one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century, described media as “extensions of man” and predicted that electronic media would eventually lead to a global village. Communities, he predicted, would no longer be tied to a single, isolated physical space but connect and interact with others on a world stage.

What often goes untold is that McLuhan did not see the global village as a peaceful place. In fact, he predicted it would lead to a new form of tribalism and result in a “release of human power and aggressive violence” greater than ever in human history, as long separated —and emotionally charged— cultural norms would constantly intermingle, clash and explode.

Today, what we most need to grapple with is the dystopia that McLuhan foresaw and described so eloquently and accurately. People do not vehemently refute science, trash Darwin, deny climate change or oppose life-saving vaccines because they have undergone some rational deductive process, but because it offends their identity and sense of self. That, more than anything else, is why change fails.

Yet as Francis Fukuyama pointed out in his recent book, our identities are not fixed, but develop and change over time. We can seek to create a larger sense of self through building communities rooted in shared values. What’s missing in our public discourse today isn’t more or better information. What we lack is a shared sense of mission and purpose.

That is the challenge before us. It is not enough to devise solutions to the problems we face, although that in itself will require us to apply the best of our energies and skills. We will also have to learn to survive victory by overcoming the inevitable strife that change leaves in its wake.

– Greg


Image: Unsplash


One Response leave one →
  1. Peter Holleley permalink
    January 2, 2022

    WELCOME, this new year!
    Sit yourself down in a quiet space with your favorite beverage.
    Recollect and celebrate things that went right for you in 2021.
    Touch upon what went not so right and envision that task going well in 2022.
    Hold these visions in your mind for long enough that they become real to you.
    Going forward, remember these visions of success and let them guide you forward.
    As 2022 unfolds, celebrate the successes of your visions and those of whatever fate sends your way.
    Make whatever notes you find to be useful.
    Peter Holleley
    Toronto, ON, CA

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