5/1/1998 | 3 MINUTE READ

Something Is Happening...

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Some of you will remember the Bob Dylan lyric: 
"Something is happening, but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?" The line resonates with omniousness. Mr. Jones is in an environment where there are changes. He is aware of them. But he can't identify them. He can't understand them.

The shifts and upheavals that Dylan was referencing in the `60s were social and political. What was then radical is now the status quo. Example? Well, when the bad-boy band of the 1960s, The Rolling Stones, went out on their last tour, they were sponsored by a telecommunications company, Sprint. Perhaps the only more outrageous possibility would have been sponsorship by a bank—although there is a Rolling Stones VISA card so that people can show their affinity with the group... perhaps when picking up Geritol.

It's not always clear that changes have occurred. Sometimes the shifts are too subtle. Before you know it, it's over. It's like the case of the frog in the pan of water: Put it in cold water and slowly heat it up; you'll end up with frog soup. The change is not discerned. Toss a frog into boiling water and it will, correctly, make every effort to get the hell out of there. That change isn't subtle.

Many of us are the frog in the pan being heated. The status quo is changing, yet everything pretty much seems the same. We are in worse shape than Mr. Jones. At least he knew something was happening. We tend to be blissfully unaware—until events overtake us and it is too late. In the world of business, "too late" means going out of business (sooner or later). At a personal level it means that (a) the job you had is beginning to dissolve (or has completely done so) or (b) the skillset you presently have isn't as valuable as it once was. Either way, this is not good for your mental or financial health.

These discomforting thoughts occurred to me while reading a recently published book, Blur: The Speed of Change in the Connected Economy by Stan Davis and Christopher Meyer (Addison-Wesley; 265 pp.; $25.00). The blur that the authors are referencing relates to both the way that something going incredibly fast appears and to the indistinct interfaces that are being created between and among organizations. Things are going so rapidly in today's economy, they maintain, that it is hard to even discern what's going on. In that regard, their book provides some prescriptive lenses that can help provide focus.

They base their argument on three things: Speed, Connectivity, and Intangibles. Speed, of course, relates to the fast-paced changes that are provoked and provided by silicon and software, changes that make what happened in the `60s look positively Neolithic. Connectivity derives from the same sources; it is occurring to an extent that is incredible: who would have imagined even 10 years ago that people would be walking around with phones in their pockets or that people could communicate across the planet for the price of a local phone call? Intangibles are, as the term itself implies, more difficult to define; they can be considered the expectations that we now have, particularly when purchasing something (e.g., think of what J.D. Power & Associates have done to our expectations regarding the auto "ownership experience"—we probably didn't even know we had one before they drew our attention to it).

The authors insist: "If you think you are in a product business or a service business, think again. To survive and thrive, you must be in both. This probably means that your whole management approach (e.g., which variables you focus on, how you manage your costs, your pricing philosophy) will have to change." Note well that they say a definitive "will have to." We might like to argue with this certitude. But as they indicate what's going on, as they cite chapter and verse of the New Economy, it is hard to counter that things aren't that different. They are.

Change is discomforting. It is sort of like exercise. It is good for us, but we tend to prefer not to do it, or we enjoy it more having done it. But just as a body requires exercise in order to keep it working well for as long as it can, we all need—personally and organizationally—to force ourselves to recognize the importance of change to our well being, and then to just do it.

If you have any doubts, I strongly recommend Blur. And for those of you who are already leading change, you'll undoubtedly find the examples and arguments that the authors put forth both encouraging and bracing.