What’s Been Going on in 2017

I may be premature in reflecting on some of the trends that have peaked this year, but am writing now as a great deal of the Northern Hemisphere hibernates from December on. Here are some of the themes pre-occupying the communal mind in 2017, although there’s no attempt to be completely objective - I’ve tended to pick the ones that most impact my work on Innovation, Disruption and Transformation, digital or otherwise. Also here are my contenders for book, music and new word of the year.


1. Chips With Everything

It’s almost possible to have a business conversation without the word ‘Digital’ cropping up – Digital Transformation, Digital Citizens and Going Digital are typical phrases that dominate the commercial lexicon. Consultancies talk about companies becoming part of the ‘Digerati,’ creating the paranoia that if you aren’t aboard the train – preferably in the driver’s cabin - the Amazon Economy will swallow you whole.

Whether you like it or not, they are broadly right. Which doesn’t mean you should outsource rational thought in the lemming race to replace all you do with AI, algorithms, virtualisation, E-everything, and robotics. You still need to consider why you are making the transformation, where it will most improve your customers’ experience, and what it will take to ready your enterprise in organisational, people and investment terms. Despite the current hype, a business rarely sets about consciously disrupting a market: rather they aim to provide better and different solutions for their users. Disruption is the outcome, not the journey.

There is some pushback to the tide of digital change. I very much enjoyed David Sax’s book, The Revenge of Analog, but it’s mainly niche, even when it’s an ethical quizzing of the business practices of internet giants. Like it or not, convenience and ease of use trumps all other human considerations, at least for the immediate future. And it will until we have realised the truth of technology maven Nicholas Negroponte’s observation that we will be truly digital when we stop talking about it; it’s become the assumed way we work. As it already it is for the Millennial generation.


2. Millennial Mania

Only when I was asked to speak about Managing and Marketing to Millennials did I fully realise what a huge industry this had become. Myriad books, research studies, videos and websites are devoted to discussing a generation now 80 million strong in the USA alone. Digital marketeers see dollar signs, provide by the new media’s ability to ‘narrowcast’ their targeted messages right down to the individual unit of society. Meanwhile organisational leaders often stereotype those born between about 1980 and !999 (theories on this differ!) as spoiled and needing continual praise, while possessing unrealistic expectations of what a working life can offer them.

Millennials want autonomy, meaning and work-life balance, and many of them even sleep with their digital devices: how outrageous!

As with many of these so-called generation gaps, the reality is rather more nuanced. I advocate a dose of ‘Both/And’ thinking – the new generation now poised to take over our organisations is both different and yet at heart the same as their predecessors. We all need and expect more out of our working life than mere pay and rations, and an improved connection across the age groups can bring a boon to both sides of the apparent divide. Witness the growth of ‘reverse mentoring,’ where the relative youngsters can coach their elders, not just in the obvious arena of tech trends but also in understanding new values, beliefs and ways of living. So don’t arbitrarily diss gamification, social media and the mass addiction of Game of Thrones – get in there and experience it for yourself, while at the same time not being shy to share the positive aspects of your own life experience. You may be surprised how well relative youngsters respond if the connection becomes a dialogue, not an order or judgement. Millennials are called Generation Y in part because they like to know ‘why’ you are asking them to do something. Great leaders of the future will recognise this. Probably because they’ll be Millennials themselves.


3. Catch A Falling Star

Hardly a month goes by without us hearing of the demise of famous names, especially those in the music business. This year has seen the sad passing of Tom Petty (see my social media accounts for an obit based on his music, rather than life events), Walter Becker (one half of jazz-rock maestros Steely Dan), and Fats Domino, a prime motivator of bands like the Beatles and Stones.

One entrepreneurial idea this triggers is to set up an organisation that pre-empts the Grim Reaper by preparing obituaries in advance – new works on Dylan and McCartney I hope are premature, though I’m sure forward looking publishers are already on to this.

Doubtless spread-betting companies will run rather tasteless wagers on topics like:

• Who among the oldies will be next to go? (E.g. Keith Richards/ Neil Young/ Aretha Franklin – all short odds), and

• Who among the young ones will leave us? (E.g. Lady Ga Ga/ Taylor Swift/ Harry Styles – all long odds)

I sense a ghoulish Christmas parlour game starting here. And of course all the obituaries will be fulsome in their praise, unless we discover their subjects are responsible for as yet undisclosed “Weinstein Moments.”


4. Yesterday’s Men

What’s remarkable about the fall from grace of stars like Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey is the rate of their descent from fame and success to abusers. Spacey even finds himself edited out of his latest nearly completed movie, while it’s hard to shed a tear for Weinstein when his long-suffering wife leaves him.

Others are following, and although it’s tragic to read about the suffering of their victims, it has to be positive that so many suddenly gained the courage to speak out about their powerful oppressors.

There’s much hand-wringing about why it took so long for the truth to come out and be heard, although no-one can convincingly explain exactly why – and why the truth is pouring out now. It was refreshing to read a piece in satirical magazine Private Eye, revealing how the same press who are now baying for blood ran so many pieces in the past undermining the testimony of complainants

This is a striking modern day example of a Tipping Point, and we can take some comfort from the fact that when a positive change in attitudes is triggered, in almost anything, it happens overnight. The unenviable challenge of those in authority is to sift out the substance of abuse claims and not allow this to become a witch hunt. But for now the force is clearly and quite rightly with the victims. We can only hope this means that the chances of another Jimmy Savile getting away with it are greatly diminished.


5. Peak Robot

Talking of yesterday’s men – and of course women – there’s a current debate about whether any of us will have the job we know today in a few year’s time. The debate has been accelerated by reports like that from Oxford’s Martin School, which estimates that 47% of American jobs are at risk of being performed by automated systems and robots over the next decade or so. And these are not just blue collar manual or factory jobs – even great swathes of the professions such as accountants, doctors or lawyers are at risk.

Focus on robots is another topic that has reached a tipping point in the last year: the term was coined in a Czech play of 1920, but in 2017 it’s suddenly the hottest topic in town. Experts are clearly divided on the outcome. While there are those who believe that almost every task can be better and more cheaply performed by a machine, there are others who argue we have been here before; although the disruptive technology of the motor car wiped out jobs in the stagecoach industry, it created millions more in the building, servicing and fuelling of automobiles.

Who will be right? For once I side with those who believe the machine will score a knockout, provided our guiding belief system remains solely that of economics. It’s our fundamentalist belief in the wisdom of markets that could well drive mass unemployment, as much as the smartness of the algorithm. In the long term, machines are cheaper than people, and in most spheres more efficient, damn them! Sadly - for the average working person, that is - anything that can be automated will be, and that ‘anything’ is far more than we can imagine.

To make the discussion more personal I recommend going to a site called willrobotstakemyjob.com and typing in your profession. This will give you an answer, expressed in percentage terms, of the likelihood of your role being taken over by a silicon assistant of some sort, probably already on the inventor’s Digital Drawing Board. If you are a ‘Manager’, the chances of robot replacement are 25%, and the site gives you this advice - ‘Start Worrying!” However, if you are a civil engineer the threat estimate is only 1.7%, so you are safe.

Or are you? I think the site is underestimating the speed with which we will reach ‘Peak Robot.’ It didn’t allow me to enter the threat level for jobs like ‘The owner of this website.’ But I was relieved that it didn’t even recognise what I do for a living. Sssshh! Don’t tell the machines we are busy devising roles they haven’t even imagined!


6. Book Of The Year – I Hate The Internet

Actually I don’t, but this is my recommendation for book of the year. Young Turkish-American author Jarett Kobek has enough spleen for all of us, and directs it dramatically and unflinchingly against multiple injustices: sexism, greed, stupidity and hubris are prominent targets. And racism.

Every new character is introduced with a rating of how much eumelanin they have in the basale stratum of their epidermis. In other words, their skin pigmentation. It turns out that most of the evil ones have none, or very little, eumelanin in their basale epidermis. They are white, or at least pinkish.

The repetition is just saved from being annoying by his hit rate in spearing some odious targets. Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has little eumelanin, and the questions he devised for Facebook users are likened to the thinking of a 12-year-old. And a not very bright one, at that.

There is a storyline – sort of – but this is used as a springboard for the body blows he delivers to, well, just about everyone who crosses his mind. His anger is especially aimed at the less acceptable aspects of human behaviour in the social media world. Inevitably this means it’s hit and miss, but the hits are so funny and apposite that at least this reader is prepared to forgive his many diversions. I particularly enjoyed his assault on social media companies who vastly exaggerated – and profited from – their supposedly liberating role in the ‘Arab Spring.’

I Hate the Internet is not for the easily shocked, but for a 21st century digital era version of Thomas Pynchon or Kurt Vonnegut – packed into short, soundbite rich paragraphs – it’s a hoot to read. We live in times where almost everything can be outsourced, so I am happy to outsource, and at the same time enjoy, Kobek’s visceral outrage.


7. Virtually Nothing

I thought I’d done with tech themes, but like it or not it’s ubiquitous. Here’s the second favourite quote I’ve come across this year on the phenomenon of disappearing assets:

Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the world’s most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate.’

Strategist Tom Goodwin,

A sobering thought for the organisations who make actual, tangible stuff and still employ humans rather than robots or algorithms to make and service this.

There’s a counterblast from cosmologist Max Tegmark, who captures the human dilemma as we rush to digitize everything. He says that we are in a ‘Wisdom Race’ that hopefully will allow us to use the technology we are rushing to develop in benign and useful ways for the world.

That’s my favourite phrase of the year, and it’s a ‘race’ we must win. I’m a great believer in the art of posing the beautiful question, one that opens up creative possibilities. ‘How will we win the Wisdom Race?’ is one such question.


8. Music Of The Year

Inevitably this is a very personal choice, and despite my nerdy tendencies when it comes to all things musical, I haven’t been able to pick one album that stands above the rest. But that won’t stop me from proposing some great sounds from 2017.

You could try Annie Clark’s latest, Masseduction. She brands herself St. Vincent, and has been in the news a lot recently following high profile relationships with supermodels, a career she could have chosen for herself. Normally this puts me off – not the affairs, but the fame – as I often prefer it when the artists I know remain unknown to the chart-preferring public. I recognise this is both childish and contrarian, but it’s a hard habit to break. I’ve been following St. Vincent for a number of years; she has a wonderful voice, striking looks and is a mean electric guitarist. On Masseduction the sound is more polished, but try ‘New York, New York’ or ‘Slow Disco’ to get the feel of her languid and beguiling vocals. Then go back to previous albums and pick up tracks like ‘Prince Johnny’. Hope you find it’s worth it.

Then there’s a collaboration that shouldn’t work, but does, between two prime examples of a sub-genre called ‘slacker rock’- Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett. The nonsensical title of the album fits the theme – Lotta Sea Lice. He’s from Philadelphia while she hails from Australia, but it’s clear they’ve clicked across the oceans to produce strangely joyful voice and guitar duets like ‘Over Everything’. Like most Kurt Vile songs it takes a while to build, but when he’s in the mood and gets on a groove, he stays with it.

The same can be said for his old band mate Adam Granduciel, who performs as War on Drugs. His new album, A Deeper Understanding, is my guilty pleasure of the autumn. It’s a ticket to guitar heaven, and sounds so gloriously retro that it’s amazing he’s a relatively young guy writing and performing in 2017 – albeit with a big debt to Neil Young, Dylan and Petty for his laid back vocals.Pain’ is a good introduction, and ‘Strangest Thing’ also worth a play or two.

If you prefer something a little less mainstream, anything by Icelandic piano and techno wizard Olafur Arnalds and German avant garde pianist Nils Frahm is worthwhile. And the earworm I can’t get out of my head is the wonderfully lugubrious John Murry’s rendition of ‘This Is What Jail Is Like’. A beautiful, sad duet.

If this has whet your appetite, do email me for a full list of the year’s musical and reading recommendations.


9. The Indians Are Coming

The stereotype of immigrant working patterns has a certain amount of truth in it: they labour in corner stores or driving taxis, while the next generation become doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs. In particular, those from the sub-continent seem to follow this path.

Sundar Pichai has been CEO of Google for the last two years, presiding over a reinvigoration of the company’s fortunes and influence, in part through the bold move of vigorously refocusing the tech giant on AI. This year he joined a very select band of directors at the parent company, Alphabet.

Meanwhile CEO Satya Nadella over at Microsoft is another immigrant who bucks the trend of being an aggressive, loud leader. As a father of special-needs kids he is brave enough to talk about leading with empathy – and has successfully revived the fortunes of a famous tech name that seemed to have lost its way.

Another stereotype other other than race is being broken here – the notion that a techie or engineer can’t also lead an enterprise. To rebut this fiction, engineers James Dyson and Amar Bose seem to be doing OK at their respective companies. And not before time, at least some women are breaking into the old boys’ network. Ginni Rommety is impressive as CEO of IBM, while the leader of Pepsico is Indra Nooyi. The Indians are not just gifted programmers and maths nerds, they also have the potential to create a new form of smart leadership.

Not all is fair or fixed on the race and sexism front, but perhaps we are seeing the budding shoots of a new meritocracy. We could call it diversity delivers, rather than enforcing it through prescription. Let’s hope it continues.


10. Kintsugi – Word Of The Year?

Last year I was writing about a new word that had spread virally – hygge, a kind of ‘cosiness of the soul,’ although like many concepts it doesn’t quite translate. Of course the notion wasn’t new to the Danes or Norwegians, the countries of its origin.

This year we go to Japan for the word Kintsugi. It’s a term for the art of repairing broken pottery with powdered gold, silver and platinum while leaving the marks of mending clearly visible. Honouring the imperfection of a broken object, you might say.

In our throwaway culture it’s the philosophical meaning that I find more interesting. The technical process of Kintsugi is likened to the notion of Mushin. This is frequently translated as ‘no mind,’ which has connotations of existing fully within the moment, beyond attachment, maintaining equanimity whatever outwardly changes.

So imperfections or changes are celebrated as part of the history of the object – or with mushin those inevitable changes in ourselves. In Rock Your Presentation I wrote more practically about using your imperfections as a way of being more authentic and therefore effective in communicating to others. Leonard Cohen said it best in his song ‘Anthem’:

    Forget your perfect offering,

    There is a crack in everything,

    That’s how the light gets in.

In an era when we are all exhorted to be excellent or a winner, it’s comforting and insightful to embrace the aspects of ourselves that are broken, unformed or imperfect. Practically this prompts me to do some thoughtful repairs around the house, fixing objects that are no longer perfect, but enshrine a meaningful history for me and my family. Perhaps it will help a little to let the light of acceptance in. Kintsugi may be the way forward psychologically as well.