May 12, 2013


                          When You Come to the Fork in the Road, Take It

                We’ve been told practically since birth that a lot of the success we hope for in business (and in life) will come from being a good listener and from being really good at following directions. Consistency is another highly regarded and very traditional virtue along with learning from our experiences. But what if - in a world driven and dominated by technology that is changing much faster than ever before and picking up more speed every day – all of this conventional wisdom was basically wrong?

                What if past experience wasn’t your best friend, but your worst enemy because it was no longer predictive of virtually anything and, worse yet, because it was actually an impediment to the kinds of disruptive change and innovation that we need today  to remain competitive and ultimately to lead the global pack? Letting go of what has worked for you in the past isn’t ever easy, but it’s ever more critical that these kinds of questions be a significant part of the decision set.

               What if being consistent wasn’t the smart thing to do (that is – to keep doing things the way you had always done them), but was actually fairly stupid in that it meant that - in the months and years that had intervened since you initially made a plan and started executing it – you hadn’t learned anything that required changes, updates, pivots or even dropping whole lines of unproductive or unprofitable business?  As Emerson said, “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” And frankly, who really needs more hobgoblins – whatever they are?

                I’m especially concerned these days about a different kind of directions (in the compass sense of the word (North or South – to or from) rather than meaning “instructions”) and how important it is going to be for all of us to understand and appreciate the ways in which the flows of critical information, assets and resources have reversed their directions/polarities over the last few years so that we can quickly adapt our businesses and our operations to address the new and very different requirements that these changes dictate. And to understand the necessary changes, we’re going to need some very smart people and some strong compasses (rather than historical road maps which aren’t worth much these days) to help us find our way.

               What’s the absolutely simplest example? The obvious fact that ubiquitous connectivity, information sharing and universal access have turned every form of publication, broadcast and communication (formerly one-way or one-to-many) into a bi-directional or multi-directional conversation (at least two-way or more). The “I talk, you listen” model of anything (media, sales and marketing, education and training, and even governance) is totally toast. Everyone’s an “expert”; every opinion (based on facts or factoids) registers and counts; and sadly, in many cases, the biggest blowhard beats the brightest bulb. Sheer tonnage today trumps tact and very often the truth. This situation can’t last, but it’s what we’ve got to deal with today. The goal is to find the new business opportunities and advantages hidden in the piles of gossip and garbage.

                And what does the omnipresent cloud and the massive amounts of content of all kinds which now reside there tell us about the changed directions? It tells us that we’re entering a world of PULL where we’ll pull (and extract) information and intelligence from the cloud as and when needed and where we’re in control of the information equation rather than PUSH (and swallow) where we’re simply passive consumers of whatever crap is forced down the pipelines and feed to us. There’s just too much noise, too much information, and too many complex and overwhelming decisions coming at us for anyone to effectively process the data and make wise choices.

               But that’s exactly the kind of information overload that makes for great opportunities for those companies which can help us choose, niche, filter, process and decide what makes sense for each of us. Companies that can help us find just what we’re looking for (and no more) will set the standards for search in the future because “knowing” is going to be an insurmountable task for anyone whereas “knowing where to look” to find the answers will be the new name of the game. Chicago-based SimpleRelevance (www.simplerelevance.com) is a start-up developing and providing cost-effective analytical tools for the “rest of us” to make smart choices and sense out of masses of available (but not necessarily readily accessible) data in a cost-effective manner.

               The truth is that – in virtually every commercial exchange – the information equation has been reversed because of the improved access (for better or worse) which buyers have to group intelligence, shared opinion and pricing data which were formerly held and controlled solely by sellers and the playing field for negotiations has been altered in the consumers’ favor forever. And this isn’t simply a matter of getting a better price on some product or selecting a smarter service provider for your lawn care.

               It’s clear that no industry or profession is immune to these directional shifts. Medicine offers two great examples. First, in the old days, we picked a doctor (usually through family connections or other word of mouth) and then – if necessary – the doctor told us which hospital he or she was connected with and that’s where we went for our surgery or other procedures. There was no choice, no shopping around, no arguing – just “doctor’s orders”. In the near future, that order will be completely reversed for the vast majority of patients in America. We will pick or be assigned a health services organization and that company will specify and dictate our hospital, our doctor, and even to a very large extent our course of treatment or non-treatment. Accountants and clerks we’ve never met will decide whether we “need” (and their companies will pay for) certain tests and medication rather than our doctors. 

                And if these changes didn’t make our doctors feel somewhat diminished (to say the least), just think about how drug advertising has changed the game and turned them into glorified waiters and order takers. In the grand old days, if we were sick and saw our doctor, he prescribed any necessary medications. In fact, that ability – to write scripts - was the defining legal characteristic of being a doctor. Today, thanks to TV and the web, we go into the doctor’s office and tell him that we need the “purple pill” or a Z-pack and we won’t take “no” for an answer because we saw it on TV and now we’re the experts. Talk about TMI. And, as a result, the doctors spend their days arguing with us about ads we’ve seen on the tube rather than telling us what we need (or very often) or don’t need for our problems. And if we don’t like their answer or their reluctance to give us what we think we need, increasingly, we can go to see a nurse practitioner or clerk at our neighborhood drug store and get our fix right there.

                As the information around us expands and implodes at the same time, and we are all swamped in the unceasing flow of data and TMI, we’re looking at another major inflection point (or - as Yogi Berra would say – another fork in the road) and, while it’s not very clear what lies on the path ahead, it’s obvious that if we don’t make some hard choices and just stand still, we’ll be run over. Where you head is less important today than the fact that you keep moving and head somewhere. When you get to the fork in the road, take it.


PP:  “You Get What You Work for, Not What You Wish for”     




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