Don't Like Change? Don't Worry, Survival Isn't Mandatory

Jeff Cole

Famous quality guru W. Edwards Deming had a great quote that went something like this: "You don’t need to change – your survival is not mandatory." Futurist Joel Barker notes that "When paradigms shift, everyone goes back to zero."

Whether we like it or not, we’re in for a lot of change between now and retirement. Add to that the speed with which change is happening and competitive pressures, you have to be constantly scanning your environment for signals to change.

Can you think of any businesses that are no longer around because they failed to change? Chances are you didn’t turn off your pager, drive home in your Pontiac, listen to an 8-track tape, fire up a betamax video and do some calculations on a slide-rule (but if you did, let me know – I’d like to meet you). Those who stay on top of change and adapt will win market share over competitors who fail to change as rapidly or change at all.

Barker cites an excellent example in his DVD "The New Business of Paradigms." In 1968, the Swiss employed thousands of watchmakers, held 65% share in the world market share with 80% of the profits. By 1978, as the digital watch gained in popularity, it dominated the analog watch industry causing the Swiss market share to drop to under 10%. They had to layoff 50,000 of their 65,000 watch workers. The irony? The Swiss themselves invented the digital watch. They thought so little of the idea they failed to protect it legally (after all points out Barker – it didn’t meet their paradigm of watches – no bearings or precise hand-crafting). They displayed their prototype at the 1968 World Watch Congress. Seiko of Japan saw it and the rest was history.

It’s a very seductive proposition to keep doing things the same way – even in the face of a changing competitive landscape. The Swiss were not the only ones to fall prey to this allure. National Cash Register almost went out of business in the early 1970’s as they steadfastly stuck to producing mechanical cash registers while the competition was converting to digital. In 2004, when Motorola released the utra-thin Razr cell phone it was revolutionary and they enjoyed massive sales (even though it only came in silver or black). When the industry analysts asked Motorola "What’s next?" their answer was "Razr’s in different colors!" (including 4 shades of pink by the way). While Motorola busily dipped cell phones into vats of paint, Apple was silently leapfrogging the industry to create a new paradigm and release the iPhone in 2007.

Does this impact you personally? As I sit here typing this, I realize I am making most of my income using methodologies, tools, and software that weren’t in existence when I went to college. If you are in your 20’s or 30’s it’s a very real possibility that when you are retirement age, you may be reporting to someone who was just born this week (assuming, of course that "retirement" is still a valid paradigm in 30-40 years…). Since 2008, all the rules we learned growing up have changed: financially, flat is the new "up", homes don’t always increase in value over time, you can’t count on putting your money in a safe bank and being able to live off the interest in retirement, etc. There’s no telling what other rules will change in the future. Who will be the competition for your next job? Will they be in the same age bracket? Same geography? Same industry?

So, what are the cautionary tales and lessons learned from all of this?

  • Paradigms change – always have – always will – sometimes even the ones you think have the least chance of changing and thus don’t even think to question.
  • When they change, it’s adapt or die. Those who adapt fastest and best win the market.
  • It’s sometimes best to be on or near the leading edge of the power curve when the shift happens
  • Companies need to keep a very close strategic eye on the competition and trends within and beyond their industry. The very best companies create the new paradigms.
  • Individuals need to work hard on their skills in being adaptable, flexible, and nimble. Proactively scan your environment for upcoming changes and get ready. Learning does not stop when you leave college. Look forward for the next 3-5 years and establish a career/life plan that addresses the most likely potential scenarios and allows you 3-5 alternate paths toward your goals.