Don’t believe the hype: the world is not speeding up

Pick up any business magazine at random and review the content. Speed is king. It now underpins almost all discussions on disruption, consumer behaviour, technological innovation, competitive strategy, investor relations, management protocols and team behaviours–to name a few. It’s even given rise to its own breed of buzzword bingo: “fail fast,” anyone?

But is the world really speeding up? A new book, High Frequency Change, challenges this theory. Its author, applied futurist, Tom Cheesewright, suggests that all is not as it appears.

“For years I bought into the narrative that we live in this accelerated age. It’s very sellable. It certainly enables consultants and keynote speakers to peddle superficially attractive wares at clients looking for easy answers.”

But when Cheesewright investigated it, the story was more complicated.

Through years of research, he found that the answer lies in technological advancement. “For a start, technology has created a new type of change. We’re used to these long, very large but slow waves. They still exist but technology has enabled smaller, higher frequency changes as well, which don’t touch every business but do impact on some,” Cheesewright says.

Industries can now feel disruptive impacts within a couple of years, Cheesewright believes, when previously such issues might have taken a decade or longer to land.

There is another factor that adds to the general feeling of acceleration: how quickly competition can spring up. “Technology has lowered barriers to market entry, which has created greater complexity. That increases diversity of choice and diversity of competition,” says Cheesewright.

Bec Evans, an innovation consultant who specialises in the publishing industry, agrees with Cheesewright’s diagnosis. Although publishing has suffered losses, it has not died–despite lots of hand-wringing about its future. “The insight about high frequency change helped me frame some of the change that’s happened in my sector,” she says.

“Far from being terminal, ebooks and Amazon represent those higher-frequency changes. While they have disrupted the high street, more independent bookshops are opening year on year, and voice is becoming dominant in search and discovery. Though changed, publishing and print will endure–we have reason to be optimistic long-term.”

So, if technology is adding both short, sharp shocks and increased competitive pressure to the mix, what do leaders need to do to help their organisations cope?

For Cheesewright, the answer lies firstly in helping the organisation become more responsive to signals from its environment. “The best companies allow people right at the edge of the organisation to pull information and take decisions quickly without having to refer up the food chain,” he says.

It is also about adjusting planning windows. In simple terms, businesses need freeing from the tyranny of short-term planning and annual budget cycles. “The nature of high-frequency change means that the priority plans are the two to five years ones. And these need to be revisited and developed every six months as a minimum,” Cheesewright suggests. During planning, leaders should identify and focus on current pain points. Where such pain intersects with coming market trends, that’s where high-frequency change is at its most threatening.

This is an emotional journey for leaders, who need to become better than ever at leading their organisations through conditions of heightened ambiguity. “A few years ago, the business press was full of pictures of ‘man pointing right’–as if to say ‘this is where we know we’re going,’” says Cheesewright. “But the future isn’t certain and good leadership needs to acknowledge that.” Businesses like Pixar have long advocated the creation of a brains trust that can help guide decision-making and Cheesewright believes this behaviour needs to become more common.

High-frequency change also demands flexibility. “Some of the world’s best organisations are already building suppleness into the way they are structured,” says Cheesewright. “The really future-ready organisations are building their business almost like a box of Lego bricks. They’re saying, ‘Look, this function fits over here and this function could be common to so many things that I might do in the future.’”

Ultimately, for leaders, structuring their businesses as networks rather than monoliths is key to mastering high-frequency change. “This can be a difficult thing to do but it’s important if you’re going to build a business that can survive and thrive in the long-term,” says Cheesewright. “Amazon has done it brilliantly, creating building blocks of business functions that can be infinitely re-used. They are an interesting example to follow.”

Mastering high frequency change–three practical lessons:

  1. Empower people right at the edges of your organisation to gather and react to information.
  2. Focus on the medium term–write a two- to five-year plan with multiple scenarios and revisit it every six months.
  3. Think of your business as a network of flexible, interconnected units and seek to structure it accordingly.