How long does it take to change the world?

big bird taxies out

Many years ago, when I was an active private pilot, I decided to honor the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk by taking my plane up for a quick morning flight before going to work. As I was turning in for the landing I remember looking over to the left a few miles away at the 3 runways and the massive infrastructure of Singapore’s Changi Airport (I was flying out of a little airport called Seletar) and wondering if the Wright brothers ever imagined all that aviation would become.

Sometimes, when I read about relatively new developments – like blockchain or AI, for instance – and pundits making predictions about how they will disrupt this, that or the other, I find myself thinking back to Kitty Hawk, December 17, 1903. Eleven years later we’d figured out how to use planes to drop bombs and fight with other people (yay, congratulations, humanity!). About 30 years later the first tiny hints of commercial aviation were in place, but it really took about 50 years for aviation to become a common global phenomenon. My father went to the US to do a PHD and his journey in both directions was on a steamer – 3 months on the way out and 1 on the way back, since in the interim the Suez canal had come into existence.

Undoubtedly, things move faster now than they did a century ago. I still think we’re a bit too eager to celebrate something as a successful disruption. Many of the things we make a big deal of go through many stages before settling down and becoming a truly new way of doing things (or a truly new thing to do).

Perhaps the best definition of a successful disruption is one that becomes such a way of life that we can’t imagine the time before it. Can you imagine a time before aviation? When it wasn’t possible to go wherever you liked and if you did go, you tended to stay there for the rest of your life? When you couldn’t sit in Shanghai and drink coffee made with beans from Colombia, eat salmon from Norway or beef from Kobe, Japan. The world was irrevocably changed by aviation and it’s really hard to even imagine what it was like before.

Can we imagine life before Uber? I can, I used to be able to stand on the street and hail a cab – no big deal. Can we imagine life before blockchain? Yep, we’re living it now. AI? Absolutely. Electric cars? Yeah… kinda – while China is an entire generation ahead of everyone else, most of the rest of the world is still on regular cars.

I’m not saying these innovations or technologies aren’t disruptive or important. They are, and they will potentially make the world a more productive and therefore, eventually, a better place. However, what worries me is too much hype too soon, because when we start believing the AI (or blockchain or what have you) revolution has already taken place, we stop thinking about how to really make use of it, what some of the barriers are, how to solve real problems with it.

I work at a consultancy called Ebiquity and a lot of the work we do begins with lots of people doing lots of data analysis. With AI driven analytics tools we could automate a huge amount of the analysis and discovery of findings to share with clients. We’d need perhaps only the top 10% of our people to then use that work in order to advice clients. (While we’re not planning to fire 90% of our people anytime soon we are looking at ways to drive efficiency and productivity).

I believe this will definitely happen in all industries that analyze data and build a consultative layer on top. However, what we’re seeing today is the initial experiments in this direction and what is imperative is that more and more companies do their own experimentation. If we sit on the sidelines and just produce handbooks on how something is going to revolutionize marketing (for instance) , but we haven’t figured out how to revolutionize the marketing consulting industry, then that’s laughable and sad at the same time. It’s not just marketing, let me hasten to add. I see post after post shared on social media by people who seem content to seek out buzzwords rather than do any real innovation or experimentation.

Is that what your organization is doing? Be careful, because when you’re all hype and no real action, that’s when you’re likely to be disrupted. Real change takes time and real effort – not just a powerpoint presentation to sell your clients or management on.