I made a new acquaintance this week on LinkedIn. He liked something I had written on the Harvard Business Review and invited me to join his discussion group on disruptive technology. I’m still not sure if I can add much to his group but it did cause me to think about this subject in terms of a blog post. For those of you who may have missed out on this theory, here’s what I know about it in a nutshell.
Disruptive technology has existed since time began. The entire history of human development is filled with evidence to support this theory. Every great achievement took us in a new direction. We found a way to make fire and cook food. We learned to hunt with a bow. We learned carpentry and metallurgy. We developed written languages and recorded our collective knowledge. We learned to mass produce the printed word. We took gunpowder and made weapons. We invented the steam engine and then electricity. We turned electricity into labor-saving devices. We built atomic reactors to power our technology. We built computers to help us invent more disruptive technology and with computers we built a platform for communication that connects us all.
In retrospect, all of those achievements seem to be monumental but none of them came without a consequence. In a perfect world, the benefit of disruptive technology would always exceed the cost but in our imperfect world that may not always be true. The first time I read about disruptive technology was nearly 15 years ago and it scared me. I was right in the middle of the great desktop publishing revolution of the 90’s and it was painful to realize my days were numbered. I tried to develop another revenue stream in multimedia production but we were too far ahead of that market and ultimately changing technology did us in. It has been 10 years since I closed the doors of Horst Graphics and now I can comprehend the implications of disruptive technology for all of us.
The last 50 years of American business has seen the rise of ruthless bottom line efficiency and cost cutting. This mindset has been the basis for all the most disruptive technological advancements of this period. Lean manufacturing, Six Sigma and best practices for all industries have squeezed all the fat out of every company that is still competitive but we may have reached a critical mass juncture. I believe our emphasis on Who, What, When, Where, How and Why has gone as far as it can go because we really only improved five of those six. It’s the Why that’s been neglected. Now most people would argue that Why is the easiest one of all to explain, to be more competitive and more profitable. I say that’s missing the point entirely. Why is much deeper than that and until we place an even greater emphasis on it, we will never achieve the greatest good.
If we only frame the question, “Why?”, in terms of competition we are limiting ourselves and our future because competition inherently means there are only winners and losers. Those who adapt are the winners and those who don’t are the losers but is that all the better we can do as humans? I think we have to work toward some point in the future where the greatest good is the common good. That doesn’t mean that all people everywhere have exactly the same lifestyle but rather that all people everywhere respect each other’s contributions to making the planet better for everyone, not just the winners. If we could focus on helping each other find a better way to coexist, there wouldn’t be such a need for winning at all costs and technology would be less disruptive.
My hope for the future is less disruptive technology and more constructive humanity. Let’s all start our conversations with a compassionate, “Why?” If someone else has to lose in order for us to win, what does that say about us as sentient beings? Trust me on this point, disruptive technology is the greatest equalizer of all time. If winning is the only measurement we use to define our existence then today’s winners will be tomorrow’s losers. We can be so much more than that if we just start looking out for each other, finding ways to work together toward a common goal and focusing on the planet as a whole, not just us against them. I think Jim Wallis summed this up nicely when he said, “It is the experience of touching the pain of others that is the key to change…Compassion is a sign of transformation.”
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