The statistician George Box pointed out that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” He meant that we create models as simplified representations of reality. They are merely tools and should never be mistaken for reality itself. Unfortunately, that’s much easier to say than it is to practice.
All too often, models take on the illusion of reality. We are trained, first at school and then on the job, to use models to make decisions. Most of the time the models are close enough to reality that we don’t really notice the discrepancy. Other times we notice that the model is off, but we dismiss it an unusual case or anomaly.
Yet the real world is always changing. So models tend to get more wrong—and hence less useful— over time. Eventually, the once-useful models become misleading and we undergo a paradigm shift. Today, as we experience a period of enormous change, we need to unlearn old models and replace them with new ones. They too will be wrong, but hopefully useful.
1. From Value Chains To Ecosystems
The dominant view of strategy in the 20th century was based on Michael Porter’s ideas about competitive advantage. In essence, he argued that the key to long-term success was to dominate the value chain by maximizing bargaining power among suppliers, customers, new market entrants and substitute goods.
Yet markets today are much faster, more interconnected and more complex than they were when Porter formulated his ideas about competitive advantage. In a fast moving information economy, firms increasingly depend on ecosystems to compete. That drastically changes the game.
Ecosystems are nonlinear and complex. Power emanates from the center instead of at the top of a value chain. You move to the center by connecting out. In a networked-driven world you need to continually widen and deepen links to other stakeholders within the ecosystem. That’s how you gain access to resources like talent, technology and information.
Consider the mobility revolution that is disrupting the auto industry. In an earlier age, the auto giants would have sought to use their market clout to dominate nascent players in an attempt to preserve their position. Now however, they are creating partnerships with tech companies, startups and others in order to innovate more effectively in the space.
Even more impressive has been the global effort to fight the Covid crisis, in which unprecedented collaboration between governments, large pharmaceutical companies, innovative startups and academic scientists developed a life-saving vaccine in record time. Similar, albeit fledgling, efforts have been going on for years.
2. From Maximizing Bargaining Power To Building Resilience And Trust
Porter’s ideas dominated thinking in corporate strategy for decades, yet they had a fatal flaw that wasn’t always obvious. Thinking in terms of value chains is viable when technology is relatively static, but when the marketplace is rapidly evolving it can get you locked out of important ecosystems and greatly diminish your ability to compete.
A report from Accenture Strategy analyzing over 7000 firms found that trust itself is increasingly becoming a competitive advantage. When evaluating competitive agility, it found trust “disproportionately impacts revenue and EBITDA.” The truth is that to compete effectively you need to build deep bonds of trust throughout a complex ecosystem of stakeholders.
If you are always looking to maximize your bargaining power, you are likely to cut yourself off from important information and capabilities that you will need to effectively compete. That’s one reason that the Business Roundtable, an influential group of almost 200 CEOs of America’s largest companies, issued a statement that discarded the old notion that the purpose of a business is solely to create shareholder value in favor of a broader stakeholder approach.
It is through forging bonds of trust that a business can build resiliency. If a company is seen as trustworthy, then it can draw on the goodwill of customers, employees, partners and communities to help it overcome a disruptive event. If, on the other hand, it is seen as greedy and predatory, everything becomes much harder. We need to learn how to rebuild trust.
3. From Vertical Agility To Horizontal Agility
For the past 50 years, innovation has largely been driven by our ability to cram more transistors onto a silicon wafer. That’s what’s allowed us to double the power of our technology every 18 months or so and led to the continuous flow of new products and services streaming out of innovative organizations.
Perhaps not surprisingly, over the past few decades agility has become a defining competitive attribute. Because the fundamentals of digital technology have been so well understood, much of the value shifted to applications, rather than fundamental technologies and things like design and user experience. Yet that will change in the years ahead.
Over the past few decades, agility has largely meant moving faster and faster down a predetermined path. Over the next few decades, however, agility will take on a new meaning: the ability to explore multiple domains at once and combine them into something that produces value. We’ll need to learn how to go slower to deliver much larger impacts.
Over the next few decades we will struggle to adapt to a post-digital age and we will need to rethink old notions about agility. To win in this new era of innovation we will have to do far more than just move fast and break things.
4. From Bits To Atoms
In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, economist Robert Gordon argues that the rapid productivity growth the US experienced from 1920-1970 is largely a thing of the past. While there may be short spurts of growth, like there was in the late 90’s, we’re not likely to see a sustained period of progress anytime soon.
Among the reasons he gives is that, while earlier innovations such as electricity and the internal combustion engine had broad implications, the impact of digital technology has been amazingly narrow. The evidence bears this out. We see, to paraphrase Robert Solow, digital technology just about everywhere except in the productivity statistics.
Still, there are indications that the future will look very different than the past. Digital technology is beginning to power new areas in the physical world, such as synthetic biology and materials science, that are already having a profound impact on such high potential fields as medical research renewable energy and manufacturing.
It is all too easy to get caught up in old paradigms. When progress is powered by chip performance and the increased capabilities of computer software, we tend to judge the future by those same standards. What we often miss is that paradigms shift and the challenges—and opportunities—of the future are likely to be vastly different.
In an age of disruption, the only viable strategy is to adapt.