By Christopher Surdak
In their 1960’s hit song, “Get Off of My Cloud,” Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones lament about others around them ruining their otherwise perfect sense of reality. Many of today’s business leaders are dealing with the same sense of malaise, caused by outside forces beyond their control. However, unlike the intrusive neighbours or loud TV pitchmen in the song, the force that is ruining these leaders’ sense of tranquility is business disruption brought about by technology innovation. In this essay, we will discuss how disturbing and disrupting stones can bring about the end of empires.
If you have read any of my previous articles for TEBR you may have noticed that the themes of technology, disruption, and social change are near and dear to me. The more I get into these topics with people around the world, the more certain trends begin to reveal themselves. Top amongst these changes is the accelerating need for us to embrace change, and our apparently increasing tendency to resist it. Most of us have a well-developed resistance to change. This is a survival skill that humanity developed over the millennia as a necessary counterbalance to our innate wanderlust.
As a result, I am not terribly surprised when I run into leaders who are presently faced with the need to make dramatic changes in their organisations yet fail to acknowledge the reality that surrounds them. Indeed, legend has it that when Native Americans first saw Europeans sailing ships on their horizon they couldn’t actually see the ships themselves, as their eyes and their brains had never experienced such a site before.
In our present world driven by the Digital Trinity of Mobility, Social Media and Advanced Analytics, there is hardly a corner of our society that is not being driven to embrace change. Nonetheless, most organisations fail to do so. Instead they continue to try to wring value out of old technologies, old processes, old rules and old constraints as a matter of course, comfort and convenience.
The path of least resistance and change is seductive to those with a vested interest in the present.[ms-protect-content id=”9932″]
The Innovation Imperative
It is no secret that old technologies and techniques necessarily become obsolete. That’s the process we call innovation and when combined with fear and wanderlust it forms the core of our humanity. We reach for new horizons, and then fear the implications of the new things that we find. But, we innovate, we poke and prod, and we come up with new, exciting, scary, invigorating insights, and we continue to advance as a species. Innovation is necessarily disruptive, as it’s hard to let go of something in your life that you previously depended upon. We often call our resistance to change and disruption, “healthy skepticism.”
But, one wonders, at what point does healthy skepticism of new technologies become self-destructive hubris, over-conservatism, or merely denial, in the face of inevitable change? Sometimes insights into understanding today’s problems are all around us; we need merely change our point of view and our context. In trying to understand how new technologies create substantial, disruptive and permanent change to human societies and culture, we need simply to look under the soles of our shoes. The very dirt and rocks that we walk upon can give us all kinds of insights into the process of technology disruption, if we only ask the right questions.
Join me, for the next little while, in an exploration of the past. We are about to understand the human process of innovation, technology disruption and our fears and desires that stem from it, all by studying the rocks beneath our feet.
Knapping Your Way to the Top
It’s easy to believe that the creation and use of stone tools was necessarily a primitive art form. However, there is more subtlety to this technology than we might assume. After all, not all stones are created equal, and for ancient cultures finding the right stone for a particular task was critical to survival.
Some stones were good for grinding food, others for making shelters. Some were good for retaining heat for hearths, still others created sparks to light the fires held in those hearths. There were stones that were good for pounding and others that were good at slicing and dicing. This last class of stone was arguably the game-changer for human society. Once we had sharp tools that could cut, slice and kill more effectively than sticks, bones or antlers humans were well-positioned to dominate the planet.
The art of turning stones into edged tools is known as knapping.1 Stone knapping involves hitting the surface of an appropriate stone in such a way that pieces break off, leaving a sharp edge on the remainder. There are many types of stone which are amenable to knapping, with flint, chert and obsidian being global favourites. Once the innovation of knapping took hold all manner of tools were invented or substantially improved. Spears, arrows, axes, knives, needles, hoes, and scythes were among the vast array of edged devices made more effective through knapping.
As humans spread out across the planet they brought knapping technology with them.2 Knappers would find a mother lode of source material, work the rocks with knowledge passed down through the generations, and the result would be the tools that allowed their groups to thrive. In societies where stone tools were the pinnacle of technological achievement, knappers were the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs’, or Elon Musk’s of their day, and the tools that they produced were the historic equivalents of today’s iPad, Google Glass, drones and Tesla Model S.
Better Living through Volcanos
While there are roughly 1,500 volcanos distributed all over the world it may be surprising to find out that no two volcanos are the same.3 The chemical composition of the lava coming out of each volcano is unique, and changes with time. When lava from a volcano cools, the types of rocks that result depend upon the chemical composition of the lava as it freezes. From light, porous pumices to hard, dense, heavy basalts to raw diamonds, the results all depend upon the volcano’s chemistry. As with all children, the characteristics of a volcano’s offspring are determined at the moment of their conception.
Some volcanic rocks have a high degree of silica in their composition. Silica is basically glass, and when lava with a high enough proportion of silica hardens it forms volcanic glass; known as obsidian.4 Like most glass, obsidian has some very useful properties. It is extremely hard and relatively light. It is brittle, and when it breaks (as with knapping) it forms very sharp edges. Fortunately for humanity volcanic glasses are somewhat common, and can be found in abundance around volcanos with the right local chemistry. Obsidian was the best of these volcanic glasses, and was highly prized for its mechanical properties.
For stone-age cultures not yet fluent in the languages of chemistry and metallurgy, obsidian was the metastable-phase-shifting-carbon-fiber-superconducting-Buckminster-Fullerine of its day.5 6 7 8 9
Rock and Roll in the Americas
Pre-Columbian American Cultures, such as the Mayan, the Aztecs, the Incas and the Northern Tribes never discovered bronze- or iron-based metallurgy. As such, stone knapping was their best tool building technology and in each of these advanced cultures knapping was a hugely important industry. Finding the right stones (preferably obsidian glass), forming them into tools, and getting the results into the hands of farmers, carpenters and warriors was critical to the successful growth of each of these cultures.10
Stone tools were such a critical technology and so important to society that entire economic structures were built around their production. There were crafts guilds with masters and apprentices. There were merchants with price lists and regulators who applied tariffs. There were discount tools of barely-adequate utility and others that were masterful works of art, reserved for the nobility. Over thousands of years a transcontinental knapping and stone-working industry was formed across the Americas.11
We know this because of the uniqueness of volcanos. Archaeologists have found obsidian tools in sites throughout the Americas, and they can trace each of these tools back to their source. By analysing these artifacts scientists have confirmed that this transcontinental trade existed in the Americas long before the Spanish arrived. Obsidian blades, arrowheads and spear points have been found hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from the volcanoes that produced them. From this evidence, it is clear that trafficking in obsidian glass tools ranged far and wide across the hemisphere.12
Back in the day, if you happened to live near a good source of obsidian glass, you’d have a source of income. If you also knew how to turn that glass into tools, you lived comfortably. If you managed the trafficking of those tools you were well off, and if you controlled access to and the use of those tools, you were wealthy. Finally, if you managed to control the whole process, you were royalty. We may like to think that industrial empires and capitalism are a recent outcome of the Western Industrial Revolution; but perhaps our perspective is a little bit jaded by our modern conveniences.
At 2 am, on Wednesday, 12 October 1492 Rodrigo de Triana looked up from his night watch on the deck of the ship La Pinta, and saw something on the horizon.13 That something was the landfall that he, his shipmates, and his captain had hoped and prayed for over the prior month at sea. On that day Rodrigo and his captain, Christopher Columbus, landed somewhere in the Bahamas. They were the first Europeans known to return to the hemisphere in almost five hundred years. And unlike the Vikings who preceded them by half a millennia, Columbus and his crew didn’t come as explorers and settlers, they came as conquerors.14 Over the next two hundred years they proceeded thusly.
While the Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and Northern Tribes outnumbered the Spanish by hundreds of thousands to one, the Spanish had what noted author Jerad Diamond called “Germs, Guns, and Steel.” While the germs were perhaps unintended hitchhikers, the guns and steel (and horses) were brought with the most serious of intentions. These technologies far outpaced the stone tools of the locals, and the Conquistadores used their technical advantages to defeat the vast numerical superiority of the native population.15
In retrospect, that Wednesday was a fairly bad day for the transcontinental knapping industry. Not that they initially saw it that way. To the contrary, once the Spanish began their wars of conquest, demand for stone tools and weapons skyrocketed. After all, it took many more arrows, spears and macuahuitl (wooden swords with obsidian edges)16 to defeat a gun-and steel-armed, horse-mounted enemy than one who used the same technology, and the battles that resulted consumed much larger quantities of the older technology in an attempt to keep up.
Once Spanish guns and steel arrived, knapping as a relevant technology and obsidian glass as a technology product had seen their end. As soon as Europeans arrived on their shores the American’s obsidian tools went from being iPads, Google Glasses and Drones to being the Walkman, DVDs, Blackberrys, and OS/2 Warp.
In the absence of the ability to match the new technology, flints were better than nothing. And, innovation in flint knapping actually was valuable, at least for a short time. But, adherence to the same old way of doing things merely ensured failure in the face of the new, disruptive technology.
Letting Go of Your Past While There is Still Time
There are many lessons about technology, disruption and social change that can be learned from the European colonisation of the Western Hemisphere. Many of these lessons come directly from what we have learned from the rocks that survived from that era. Perhaps some of these may seem relevant to you, in the changes that you are facing.
While the Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and Northern Tribes outnumbered
the Spanish by hundreds of thousands to one, the Spanish had what noted author
Jerad Diamond called “Germs, Guns, and Steel.”
1. To See a Forest, You Need the Trees
If you were an Aztec, Mayan or Incan warrior facing down the Conquistadores it would be easy to wish that you too had a gun, or steel arms and armor. Indeed, if you managed to obtain one of these weapons from your enemy you would likely use that new weapon, rather than those that you were used to.
When introduced to new innovations and technologies it is easy to get wrapped up in the end results and miss all of the innovations required to create that output. To fight the Spanish on equal footing the natives needed guns and swords. But to do this, they FIRST needed to develop metallurgy, chemistry, blacksmithing and mining. They needed to identify sources of sulfur, saltpeter, and iron. They then needed to train miners, smiths and chemists.17 Thereafter they needed to train instructors to train the soldiers who would then be able to put up a fight.
New technologies almost always leverage and build upon a host of others. While a certain innovation, like the gun or the iPhone, may appear to be a singular innovation they always stand upon the shoulders of other, more mundane advancements. In order to take advantage of a bright, new, shiny innovation, you must also come to terms with all of the other innovations that made it possible.
In contemporary business, established companies are trying to stave off the dramatic changes all around them. They are “moving to the cloud,” or they are, “embracing Social Media.” Perhaps they claim to be “leveraging contingent workforces,” or “Uberfying what we do.” No matter what the latest trend or technical disruption, existing organisations believe that pronouncing the introduction of a “Tiger Team” to “Look into it,” is the same as actually embracing and owning a new technology. This all makes for good marketing copy, but it also rings hollow. An Aztec warrior could readily pick up a Spanish musket on the battlefield. But, once he ran out of ammunition, his martial abilities and marksmanship mattered very little.
Nokia and Research In Motion both had “smartphones” before there was such a thing. Then Apple came along with the iPhone and annihilated both of them in just a few years. Was the iPhone just that much better? Not really. What made the iPhone and iPad dominant technologies was all of the supporting technologies around them. The iPhone took off because of iTunes, the App Store and the rest of the ecosystem that Apple deployed BEFORE the iPhone. These were the mines, the blacksmiths and the chemists that were necessary to create the shiny new end-product; like the gun or the sword.
Indeed, the failure of Microsoft to win in the smartphone arena is not because they cannot make a good smartphone. Rather, it’s because they keep trying to make a palm-sized laptop instead. No matter how hard they try, a musket made out of obsidian is a one-shot proposition, as lethal to the shooter as it is to the target.
Similarly the Tesla Model S is such a revolutionary electric car because Tesla took the time, money and energy to develop the supporting technologies FIRST (like rapid-charging, long-lasting, high-capacity batteries)18 and then made a game-changing car. Other auto manufacturers simply tried to electrify their existing designs, with relatively limited success. Similarly the Incas could have tried to create a cavalry out of their llamas and alpacas, but their livestock just wasn’t up to the task.
The lesson here is that no matter how seductive the cheap and easy path of adopting a new technology at its end point may be, if you haven’t earned that new technology the hard way you never really own it. At best, you’re either borrowing a musket until it runs out of ammunition, or you’re putting a horse’s saddle on a llama in a way that merely punctuates just how much you’re missing the point.
2. Kill Your Old Strategies and Tactics, Before Your Opponent Does it For You
In pre-Columbian warfare, most Americans followed a fairly standard set of strategies and tactics in warfare. A battle would normally start with both sides lining up just out of arrow range. Both sides would begin yelling and screaming, blowing horns and beating drums in an attempt to intimidate each other before the fighting began. This was common practice in most pre-gunpowder societies.19 As husband to a champion Scottish Bagpiper, I have some familiarity with the use of loud musical instruments as weapons of intimidation.
Once both sides were sufficiently juiced up they would begin to slowly close in on one another. Once in range arrows and slingshot were launched at the enemy. Then the best, strongest and bravest warriors would rush in to strike the first blows on the enemy’s best. Being in front was a place of glory and honor, and only the elite warriors were allowed to begin a battle. Once the superstars were engaged everyone else poured in and a melee ensued until one side or the other was victorious.
While these strategies worked great against a foe with the same technologies, they were disastrous against the Conquistadores. Standing out of arrow range and performing their war displays simply allowed the Spanish to fire and reload their firearms unmolested. Then, once the natives began to close the distance their best and bravest warriors were the first to be cut down by the Spanish volleys. If this wasn’t enough to unnerve the lesser native fighters, at this point a few dozen four-meter-tall, half-horse-half-man monsters (known as cavalry in Europe) would rush in from their flanks, and kill men en masse.20
The only chance that the remaining warriors had was to get in close to the Spanish, quickly. But then wood and stone swords were no match against steel, nullifying much of the talent, skill and bravery of the remaining warriors. From top to bottom, the strategies and tactics that work under the umbrella of one set of technologies fail completely in the face of a new set. That’s why we call it disruption.
On the rare occasion that the natives changed their tactics, they managed to have some success. Rather than holding a pre-battle dance party, the warriors would ambush the Spanish. They would send in lower warriors first to absorb the first volley of gun fire, and then rush in with all hands to engage in close combat before the enemy could reload. However, these tactics ran so counter to their established norms and customs that the native warriors simply could not change their approach fast enough to save their societies.
To survive the introduction of a disruptive technology you first must recognise that your whole world view could be, and likely is, wrong. All of the methods and approaches that you have used in the past, all of the skills you have honed, all of the rituals that you have embraced as part of how you operated are almost certainly going to work against you in the new world around you. If you keep to your same old tactics, you’re likely to fail as spectacularly as a society that had a many-thousands-to-one numerical superiority over their opponents.
3. Better Knapping is Not The Answer
In the face of the threat posed by the Spanish, the leaders of the native societies looked to their existing experts to find a solution to their problem. When faced with battlefield losses they asked their existing generals to troubleshoot their failed tactics. When faced with an enemy armed with “fire sticks” and “invincible swords” they asked their best obsidian knappers how to defeat these new weapons. Those generals and knappers dipped into their life-long expertise in what they did in an attempt to figure out how to do what they did, only better.
The problem with this approach is this; the best obsidian knappers may seem like the best gun makers, but this is not necessarily so. They are deeply vested in their prior art; indeed this is what made them “experts”. There are strong dis-incentives for them to discount their own expertise by innovating themselves into oblivion. Hence, the deeper their knowledge of past technologies, the deeper the hole they must climb out of to learn something new. It is a natural tendency to look to the masters of an old technology in order to answer the threats of a new one, but this is typically an exceptionally difficult thing for them to do.
Modernly, organisations frequently ask their best, most experienced experts in old techniques and technologies to create responses to new ones. Then, they are surprised when those same experts completely fail to innovate themselves out of a job. Realistically, no amount of innovating the process of knapping was going to make an obsidian arrowhead better than a musket. If the native knappers improved their output of spear points by 2 percent every year, their armies still were not going to win those battles. And if the knappers made their sword blades 10 percent sharper than before, they still wouldn’t penetrate Spanish armor plate.
In this light, will asking your existing experts to beat new technologies and innovations through doing the same old thing, only faster, cheaper or more emphatically likely yield success? If regular taxi drivers drive faster, smoke less, and talk less on their mobile while driving, are they likely to stave off Uber? Similarly, if your existing staff of administrators, managers, accountants, and analysts generate the same old reports or metrics, just faster and more accurately are they really going to save your business from a competitor that doesn’t even run reports?
I would offer that your best strategy is to take people who know enough about your existing technologies and processes such that they understand their strengths and weaknesses, but who are also not so vested in the present way of doing things that they’ve lost all perspective, and give them what those more vested in the past would believe is an impossible goal. That is, after all, how your new competitors are doing to you what they are doing, is it not?
4. Partner, Don’t Purchase
While the Conquistadors had a big advantage in technology over the Native Americans, they also faced a massive numerical disadvantage. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe that the population in the Americas before Columbus was around 50 million, and perhaps as high as 100 million.21 Conversely, the early Spanish invaders were hard pressed to number over one thousand. Rather than hoping that their technology would make up the difference the Spanish followed a much more pragmatic strategy.
Throughout the Americas there were many societies that were secondary to the Aztecs, Mayans, Incas, and so forth. They constantly warred with these larger groups in an attempt to gain power for themselves. When attacking the main power in a territory the Spanish joined with these second-tier powers in an alliance of convenience. The native allies provided the numbers necessary to nearly match their opponent, and the Spanish used their technology to tip the odds in their alliance’s favor. In this way, the impact of a relatively small number of Conquistadors could completely change the outcome of a battle.22
Today, many organisations have lost their ability to innovate as they reach the end of their Discover, Infiltrate, Exploit (DIE) lifecycle. In order to reinvigorate themselves, they believe that acquiring fresh, new companies with fresh, new talent and technologies will help them survive in the face of disruption. I’m never surprised when these companies later find that their investments don’t pay off. Their plans of buying their way to innovation, rather than earning it, fails to pan out, and generally every one of the innovators that created the purchased company or innovation are gone as soon as their retention contracts expire.
Of course, this outcome should have been completely predictable. The Spanish could never train and arm an entire army of Natives in the use of their technology. There wasn’t the time, ability or pre-disposition. But, by setting their innovations to make up for the weaknesses of an also-ran of the old guard, disruptive outcomes became assured.
The lesson here is this: if you are vested in old technologies and approaches you cannot buy your way into innovation. Bringing new ideas or technologies in-house almost always kills the innovation. But, you can partner with innovators to capture what is left of the old way of doing things, at least until the old way inevitably dies.
5. Invest In Your Own Death
As mentioned earlier, when the Conquistadores first landed in the Americas demand for knappers and obsidian edges actually increased, and the cost of production, distribution, et cetera, began to go down. There had to be SOME response to the threat caused by the invaders, and in the absence of innovation, more of the same old technology is the only available response. These factors of ever-declining costs, increased production and apparent increases in demand are, in fact, a great indication that your business is going to be disrupted.
As such, you need to reorient your strategy to recognise and embrace your impending demise. Go ahead and keep innovating in your knapping, but with only roughly 20% of your total investment capital. With this 20%, you should be seeking ways to drive the commoditisation death spiral of your products or services EVEN FASTER. You want to flood the marketplace with obsidian blades. You want your native warriors dressed head to toe in obsidian armor, and to shoot ten times as many stone-tipped arrows as ever before.
You want to fully exploit every possible niche of use for your obsolete technology as is possible; including those which were underserved before due to relative scarcity or relative expense. You want to be Dell, merging with EMC in the face of Amazon Web Services or Marriott acquiring Starwood in the face of Airbnb. You want to be Fiat acquiring Chrysler in the face of Tesla Motors. Capture what is left, for as long as you still can, but prepare to put yourself out of business, fast.
The remaining 80% of your investment dollars should be focused on embracing disruptive technology. You should invest in understanding it and reorienting towards it. But, you must not just get caught up in the shiny end point. Do not invest in the gun, invest in the gunpowder. Invest in the forge. Invest in metallurgy and blacksmithing and chemistry. With time and effort you may combine your existing knowledge with new insights, and end up making a maxim machine gun, rather than a copy of a musket.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want
After contemplating this history of stone, you may be thinking to yourself Time is on My Side. But I assure you, with this mindset you’re Playing With Fire. In the face of technology disruption you may be saying Gimme Shelter, but Wild Horses couldn’t carry you away from the changes that are coming. Facing the reality of the situation is hard, and you may wish that you could just take Mothers Little Helper in order to avoid your Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown. Your “Tiger Team” of old-school experts likely won’t solve your problem, even if they beg you to Start Me Up, like some Beasts of Burden. Adapting to rapid technology change requires that you disrupt yourself, before someone else does, otherwise you’ll find that you Can’t Get No Satisfaction out of your same old way of doing things, and your own empire may be coming to an end.
In that end, maybe Mick and the boys were right all along.
About the Author
Christopher Surdak is an Engineer, Juris Doctor, Strategist, Tech Evangelist, 2015 Benjamin Franklin Innovator of the Year, and Honored Consultant to the FutureTrek Community, Beijing, China. He has recently launched his own consultancy firm Surdak & Company. He is also the author of Data Crush: How the Information Tidal Wave is Driving New Business Opportunities, which is GetAbstract’s International Book of the Year for 2014.