Back to the Future: Principles and Perspectives for a New Normal

An on-going project with one of our clients, exploring ways their organization should react to Covid-19, brought into stark focus some of the issues that are often forgotten in the rush to understand the future and forget the past.

Corporate memory is very short. It walks out of the door when people move to other organizations, through the natural attrition of retirement, or through business disruption. But those lost individual memories can reveal general principles that impact on a wide range of organizational thinking and behaviour.

Working with organizations to help them understand some of these dynamics for over 40 years has given me a vault of memories and stories that enable CDSM people and our partners to see some of those general principles and deploy them to gain perspective on the future, as well as helping them recognise the pitfalls of some 'no brainer' options, which seem obvious but are deeply incorrect.

The use of values research is one of the best ways of understanding:

  • what happened in the past;
  • what is probable in the future (outside your control), and
  • what is possible in the future (in your control).

It's important to remember that values shifts do not tend to happen quickly or for any one reason. This is a general principle that many organizations fail to take into account as they rush towards the future.

For example, in the early 1980s I worked with a range of tech companies (none of which exist today) who were focusing on the 'paperless office'. It seemed a no-brainer as computing power was increasing at a rate of knots and computers were no longer on mainframes. Desktop computers could be accessed at home through the new thing called the 'internet' - this is well before the days of Google and the like.

In this environment, tech companies foresaw that everything could be stored in computer memory (and on floppy discs!) and therefore there would be little to no need for extensive paper files and pen-and-paper based systems of recording. This was 'the' technological vision of a 'very likely future' - based on already existing technology into which the tech companies expected to be supplying products and services.

At the same time it became clear that younger Boomers - in their late 20s and 30s - were less likely to want to climb a corporate ladder. They preferred to define their own work life and their own network of friends, with whom they could create new products and services for expanding markets. These people were the most valuable people in organizations - younger and moving into middle management quicker than previous generations and projected to create disruption at a greater rate than anything seen before.

The majority of these cutting-edge tech driven companies thought they had seen the future - and all they had to do was make sure they had new product in the pipeline to 'satisfy the demand'. As I mentioned, none of these sizeable organizations are around today - in fact most of them were gone within five years through corporate failure or through merger and acquistion.

The visions created by the tech companies did not come to fruition, as they failed to recognize quickly enough that different people change their behaviours at different speeds.

Younger people, but especially Pioneers (innovators) found the state of technology lacking real 'added value' (computers were too slow) and the shift to paperless was rejected by those people raised on paper. The 'user experience' was not an improvement on established routines.

If innovators do not adopt new behaviours, good ideas fail to gain traction, and failure is the outcome.

Even if those companies had been partially successful (in business terms, within three years) the next stage of development - a paradigmatic shift of values in both work and life - would have been on shaky ground.

Many factors can be in play - but one factor is enough to disrupt fragile systems. Less fragile systems may need many factors acting together to create a disruption.

Another one of the projects I worked on at that time was based on the implications of the changes I've outlined above. We were examining how companies were just beginning to realize that they could lower their overheads by recognizing that their most productive people didn't want to work in offices.

Not only could companies improve profit margins by paying less for offices, they could also satisfy the needs of those employees who wanted to expand their lives by developing new processes and opportunities to create a better company - or indeed new companies.

Our research showed that Pioneers were the most likely to want to work from home and be connected through the new technology of PCs and the internet with local business services and a hub, while at the same time having access to worldwide knowledge bases and people. This was called 'teleworking' and the scene was set for an explosion of new business forms, with citizen/employees creating a brave new world of work, which had vast implications for the UK cultural system.

I don't need to tell you that it didn't happen 40 years ago!

To put it a nutshell - the experience of teleworking contained too many new elements of change (technological and social) occurring all at once to be adapted easily to values sets beyond the Pioneers.

Today (May 2020) many tech trends have improved in terms of user experience but the desires of Pioneers in the world of work have still not been fulfilled. Now Boomers are retiring in vast numbers and their unfulfilled desires have still not been met ... before Covid-19.

Overnight the majority of the working population has had to work from home. Between the 1980s and 2020, forms of technology have been developed that have created new 'normal' behaviours that use phone networks (in their infancy in the early '80s) and apps that create 'free communications' (WhatsApp/Zoom) via the now established internet and within a social media network (also not there in the early '80s) which enable the 40-year-old Pioneer vision to be 'lived'.

Stressors: New Perspective on General Principles

Tech was a facilitator of the vision, but the exogenous variable - Covid-19 - is the stressor that is testing the fragility of the technological and cultural values system developed over these last 40 years.

Covid-19 is just one factor among many, and likely to work its way through within five years - one factor in the 45 years since the early '80s - but this 'Black Swan' factor can disrupt a system already under stress.

The stress is not just a negative "It's all going to hell in a handcart." It is the potential 'dawning of a new age', envisioned almost a half a century before. The changes desired by the technologist and the Pioneers 40 years ago are now 'ordinary'; no longer new. Now is the time to put together this bundle of ordinary behaviours to create the 'new ordinary' - the so-called new normal.

As the late Canadian media philosopher and professor, Marshal McLuhan, propounded many decades ago, we can only absorb about '10% new' into our values and behaviour systems before we develop cognitive dissonance. In other words, healthy and lasting change comes in little steps.

This psychological insight, and awareness of the findings of values research, is often missing when people and organizations are creating visions of the future and new systemic processes. Seemingly big changes are often just a repackaging of existing normal behaviours.

The thing I've learned over the last 40 years is this.

The future always takes longer to get here than people think it will - and that when it arrives it comes quicker than imagined.

I'm not the only person who has noted this. It was one of the pearls of wisdom passed on to me by one of the first futurologists in the 1960s. It is only as I come into my own 'mature age' that my life has proved this pearl of wisdom to be true. It is now time to pass this on to younger generations.

Cultural Dynamics Strategy & Marketing Ltd.          email:          tel: +44 (0)208 744 2546