Revisiting 'The New Normal': Do The Rules of 2010 Still Apply?

I’m proud to be speaking at the Next Berlin conference tomorrow. This 2014 edition is called “This Is The New Normal”, and seeing that my second book was called just...

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May 5, 2014
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I’m still quite convinced that they were the right rules. But I’m not too proud to admit that I missed something crucial. That there was one axiom that would trump all the others. One that has the destructive force of a sledgehammer or the power of a rocket propelling you way ahead of the others, depending on how you respond to it. Grab a coffee; this should to be a riveting tale. It’s about robot arms, the erosion of power, the Titanic, total transparency, failure, hierarchy, the power of the crowd and the sure death of certain types companies.

Rule #1: Zero tolerance for digital failure

Four years ago, I wrote that society had become neurotic about digital failure, and that this would only get worse. It has.

Digital has moved on from a luxury product, something that was nice to have, to becoming a given. When luxury fails, we are not happy. But when a commodity fails, we get angry and frustrated. Example. We arrange all of our financial affairs online. Because it’s convenient (and because banks are mysteriously only open when we’re working and not able to visit them). We do not tolerate it when our online banking interface stops working when we are making an urgent last minute payment. It really disables us. When we are denied access to our trusted digital services, we feel handicapped. It is much like when someone would take our electricity away.

It goes even further. Digital is evolving beyond a commodity. It has become a basic human right. Just ask the United Nations. In 2011, they ruled that broadband access is a basic human right. Similar to healthcare, shelter and food. True, digital goes far beyond ‘just’ the internet, but we all agree that that one is one of its biggest game changers. So what happens when a basic human right fails? In Belgium, where I live, it’s nearly impossible for landlords to close off the utility supply of payment defaulters, as energy and water are regarded as a basic human right. In most cases, a minimum of 10 ampere of electricity has to be supplied. Will the same be the case for internet supply in a few years? And will a digital failure be an infraction against human rights? And thus become a punishable action?

When I’m talking about digital failure, I do not just mean the ‘big’ failures like the Heartbleed bug in OpenSSL. Or not even how a digital flaw would become a potential disaster when a specialised surgeon is operating a patient with a robot surgical system. I’m talking about the fact that digital is so engrained in our lives that even ‘small’ failures will not be tolerated.

Rule #2: Good enough beats perfect

I like this second rule a lot. It’s a slightly anarchistic one that does not fit well in highly regulated environments. I can - almost - hear some of you think that rule number 1 and number two should be mutually exclusive. They are not. In the digital world, there is a subtle distinction between the two. Rule #1 dictates “100% accessibility”. And that is not the same as “100% perfection”. Four years ago, I wrote that as we move into the New Normal, speed, ease, and availability become more important than perfection. I still believe that. Of course it does not apply to everything. Some technology needs to be 100% perfect. You will not build a helicopter, get it 90% right, and then send it on a maiden voyage to check if it works. Except possibly when you are a film producer. Helicopters seem to explode a lot in movies.

But this rejection of 100% perfection is relevant for the bigger part of the digital world. Companies which are smart enough to ‘smell’ a need in the market and are fast and flexible enough to be the first to offer a solution or service for that, will be the ones to survive. Even if their app is for instance not 100% perfect. Innovation is about being a pioneer. If you procrastinate, others will just beat you to it. It’s as simple as that. Do you remember Elisha Gray? He invented the telephone. Still does not ring a bell (no pun intended)? That’s because Alexander Graham Bell beat him in the race to the patent office, by just a few hours. Being fast was always important, of course, but the speed has gone up quite a lot in the meantime. I always liked how Mario Andretti put it: “If everything seems under control, you're just not going fast enough”. Speed eats perfection for breakfast any day of the week.

When I wrote the New Normal, I used the examples of Skype, MP3 and Gmail. Today, I’m thinking of the Uber app that “connects you with a driver at the tap of a button”. Is it perfect? No. For one, it’s expensive. And, during holiday times such or bad weather, it even increases its prices to "surge price" levels. But it’s easy, fast, reliable and comfortable. And it certainly beats waving your hand - attached to your soaking wet body - on a rainy New York day, waiting for a cab that is apparently driven by Godot. So, yeah, good enough still works as a rule. And it is the stuff of giants. Just think of how terrified Uber has made the taxi industry

While I did some research for this piece, I bumped into a blog article dated February 2014 that was called “Good is not good enough”. Curious if it contained some convincing arguments against this principle, I started to read it. Turned out it was originally published on the “Inside Blackberry for Business Blog”. Are you smiling yet? I know I am. Truth be told, they were talking about security in healthcare, financial services, insurance,… which is indeed a tricky subject when it comes to this debate. But still, it feels fitting that the Titanic of mobility (it really did not see that ginormous iceberg up ahead, did it, … and one might argue that it still does not), would talk about the “failure” of good.

Rule #3: The era of total accountability

In 2010, I thought that the New Normal would be marked by a sense of total accountability, primarily as a result of total transparency. Let’s zoom in on the driver on this rule first. The New Normal is all about openness. Nothing. Remains. Hidden. Permanently. Pause for dramatic effect.

You must have noticed how difficult it is to eradicate old pictures or Youtube videos, if it even is possible anyway. Did you know there is a website “cemetery” – called the Wayback Machine - where you can visit old versions of your site, ones that you are probably ashamed of? Go ahead: knock yourself out: type your url on Non-digital natives tend to get clammy hands when they think about this total transparency. They are still vulnerable to the Streisand effect (attempting to hide a piece of information, which - mostly online - has the unintended consequence of making the information travel even faster). Generation Y, and even more so generation Z, have grown up with this far reaching kind of openness. They do not fight it. They accept it. Better: they applaud it. They use it to their advantage.

The smartest companies have understood that. They realize that openness will soon be the norm. Because this is the era of total accountability. Companies with smart meters in their offices can easily measure if the promise of their contractor that they will “save 15% on energy costs if they insulate their walls and have an ROI within 5 years” was indeed bankable. Sales directors know which reps get the most turnover,… in which retail stores … at what times. Digital newspapers know which journalists write the most popular pieces. Babycams reassure moms which babysitter takes best care of their benjamins. Fitness adepts with their wearables know immediately if their change of diet or work-out plan is indeed having the intended effect. More and more gets out in the open. This is a ruthless time. Mediocrity will not cut it. Employees will have to work harder. Suppliers will need to keep improving and renewing their offers. And don’t even think of cheating. Just keep in mind the current debate about the planned obsolesce of printers or washing machines and the appalled reactions of the public.

Rule #4: Abandon absolute control

So here we are: almost at the end of my story of today. But not quite. Because this one is the major game changer. This is the New Normal rule that upturns our business models, our markets, our customers and our way of leading. This is my Sharknado (let’s face it, no one … in the entire world … expected that a movie about a tornado filled with sharks was coming their way): I knew it was big, but I did not see it coming how huge it would be.

In the New Normal, you need to embrace the fact that prediction, planning, models, hierarchy and focusing on the individual no longer works. Fighting a fast and fluid outside world with solid command-and-control structures is like trying to catch a rabbit with an army tank. I agree with Nassim Taleb when he says that when we try to make our economy, our banks, our education or our organisations less fragile, we often make them so rigid, so static, and so vast that they no longer work. He thinks we need to look for concepts that are antifragile — ”things that benefit from shocks, that thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” He’s right.

Time to accept how our environment has evolved instead of trying to change it. We need to adapt. Fast. Because embracing digital - and the way it has transformed our environment – might have offered a competitive advantage once, but today it is a clean-cut matter of do or die. Those that will survive these thrilling times are the ones that are as fast and fluid as the outside world. Digital made the outside world VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous). Digital made it completely open. Digital fuelled interaction and collaboration. It is what our customers expect from us. And what our youngest employees need.

Let’s be honest: this is a trying time for traditional leaders. They were used to see their employees working hard in the office from 9 to 5. Now people work at home, in third offices, on the train, from 11.00 to 20.00 with a break at 16.00 to get the kids. There is very little way of knowing if they are indeed doing their jobs. Leaders used to be the ones that got respect, just because they had a title. Now youngsters barge in unannounced in their offices because they do not agree with a new change announcement. When they lack to invest in certain tools, their employees go underground with shadow IT. Their customers used to be loyal and certainly less loud when they were unsatisfied. Now they check out their goods in their physical store but buy them on their smartphones at a cheaper price, while still on the premises (the nerve!). It gets worse: their junior project managers ask their online communities for feedback at home when their boss asked for some new ideas. With no regards whatsoever for company privacy! How are leaders going to control that? It’s simple. They can’t. They just need to deal with it and turn it into an advantage.

It is plain to see that you cannot try to battle showrooming by blocking phone reception. It will just drive customers away. Just the same you cannot defend young employees to ask for input and inspiration on their online platforms. The key is to let them play with that. That is how you keep young talents and stimulate them to use the power of the crowd.

Because this is the age of networks. The age where everything is linked with everything and there is no way of knowing 100% upfront what will impact what and in which way. Command and control does not work in this new paradigm. Hierarchy is completely irrelevant to networks. They are driven by the community. They are fueled by the sharing of experience and knowledge. Not just because expertise is becoming so micro-segmented that most of us are too “dumb” on our own to come up with game changing ideas. But because generation Y and Z believe that sharing is actually multiplying rather than ending up with less and that is how they want to work.

Networks are places where information flows faster. Where intelligence filters faster. And where innovation moves faster. The New Normal was just the beginning. Digital was ‘merely’ the spark. This is the age of the networks. It is a place that we can only survive together. Are you ready for that?

Originally posted as a LinkedIn Influencer Piece. View all of Peter Hinssen's LinkedIn Influencer posts here.

Peter Hinssen
Peter Hinssen
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May 5, 2014
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