Lesson of Cezanne & The Upcoming Disruption

There was a time when great art was about depicting things as close to what the human eye could capture in real life. And then photography came along. Imagine being the artist that had perfected your craft up to that point.  You would be thinking something like, “flubbertyjickets”, as you found yourself more a master of the past than the future.

In the decades from 1870-1920, society witnessed more technological revolutions than the world had seen in the previous four centuries. We got photography, cinematography, the telephone, the car, the airplane, and I’m sure a bunch of things I’m neglecting to mention.  The problem for everyone doing their existing thing was that their tried-and-true well honed craft was now obsolete. They saw it coming to a point but then … kabam, the revolution was there. Artists then needed to find a new way of seeing – to reinvent their work to be relevant in the new era. Cezanne did this by abandoning what was realistic drawing to create what is now abstract art. In his footsteps, came Picasso and others who took this new medium of modern art to another level.

(By Cezanne, artist, born in Aix-en-Provence. Learned this contextual story while there in the summer 2010. Also hiked this mountain in the picture, called Mont St. Victoire, which is unsurprisingly the name of this piece.)

It may not be obvious yet, but I’m going to call it: we’re having a similar revolution and it will affect all of our organizations.  There is enough inklings of this change that it’s not that much of a call, really. Yet, if you look around, you’ll notice….all existing players are still holding onto what they already know. With a vengeance. Like the artists of the earlier era, they are hoping they can just tune around the edges, hoping to not really have to change. The revolution I speak of is fueled by social era. And it disrupts every big organization we see.

Every organization desires to be the “800 Lb Gorilla” in their space – that dominant position an entity owns when they have the size and strength to crush anyone in their path. But many 800-lb gorillas look more like dinosaurs. From technology companies, to the entire banking industries, educational institutions, to automotive firms, across health care and certainly even including the publishing industry … organizations that once dominated now struggle to meet ever changing, faster market requirements, while they face an ongoing online conversation about their relevance.

This is somewhat predictable. Clay Christensen’s thesis was that new technology emerges that excels in different dimensions of performance, gains a foothold and fundamentally changes the cost structure. While his original body of research proved the point, the web and the social dynamics have brought it to life.

It is not new news to say the cost to create information is effectively zero, and that ubiquitous platforms provide zero information distribution costs. Tapscott and O’Reilly have eloquently spoken and written about it, for years. With this free (or nearly free) ability to create value, profit and power can be created by models previously unthinkable.

But let’s play this out for existing organizations. In this context, what happens to the proverbial 800-lb Gorilla? Is their goal in this new context to do more, faster? Or is it to do things, entirely differently?

You likely already know the answer. But apparently most firms don’t.  No, they are focusing on companies to buy, or to put their previously packaged software-apps online, or focusing on operations to make themselves more efficient through cost cutting or doing price increases. Each of those decisions might absolutely be right if viewed close-up and narrow to the company. But these actions appear more like moving the seats around on the Titantic if viewed in larger context. What these firms might have in size and scale, they lack in nimble responses, and velocity of innovation. What they have in efficiency and cost management, they lack in soul. What they have in many people defined as boxes in an org chart is just too many people waiting to be told what to do.

The Occupy Wall Street thing is not a meaningless act of randomness; it is yet another sign of the revolution afoot. Just because work in the past century has been a construct largely without soul, maximizing efficiency, and treating people hierarchically, doesn’t mean it will continue to be that way. We have something possible today that we’ve never had before, because of the social era. We now have the possibility to create value collaboratively because of shared meaning and purpose. It should be said that it will be done with people, not at people. This can change not only how we communicate but also how we work at the most broad levels — how we organize every single part of our organizations – from what we make, to how we product and distribute, to what we market and sell. Everything.

Do we know exactly what the new organization looks like? Do we know what we exactly needs to be changed? I believe you and I see the early signals, signs, and have indicators of where to go. We see it when we look at what Firefox Mozilla has been able to do with an army of volunteers in the open community. We see it when we look at TED and the global community of TEDx who accomplish more because of passion than budget would ever allow. We see it with Kickstarter, where a community invests in an idea, and that shifts capital from purely economic return to a deeper social measure. We see each one of these stories (and more), and see them as early signals. But the 800-lb Gorilla sees this and thinks it is an anomaly.

Each of  these examples show us that social will enable a different kind of organization, a different kind of world of work. By “loving” Firefox, the web community is saying that they believe an open web browser is valuable to the world. By loving TEDx, a volunteer army of people are saying they believe in smart ideas that get people to think more about their world is an idea worth putting energy into. More than what a company produces, this shared purpose creates leverage because it allows everyone to work towards a shared goal. When people know the purpose of an organization, they don’t need to check in or get permission to take the next step, they can just do it. When people know the purpose, they are not waiting to be told what to do. As I talked about in my first book, New How, through shared purpose, alignment happens without coordination costs. Shared purpose makes customers, and team-members more than transactions and payroll recipients. This enables the inherently collaborative nature of work – people can own the co-creation of ideas within the enterprise, or blur boundaries between customer and company by being co-producers of product lines. This new era is defined by this truth: the future is not created, the future is co-created. Play this concept out in the marketplace, and it is the disruption of our century. Shared purpose will do to business what photography did to art in the early 20th century — it will create a different paradigm entirely.

Chezanne invented what we now call the impressionist method only after perfection came in through the photography method, and displaced what was perfectly viable until nearly moments before.  It seems to me we might very well see that Kabam moment for organizations, and soon. I can imagine that the parallel will hold – that we will see something the same until we see it differently and anew.  Only later will we be able to explain that this was because of the impact of the social era, and specifically shared purpose, on our enterprises.

4 Replies

  1. I agree that transformation is in order and that corporations are prescribing yesterday’s medicine for today’s illness. They’re still pursuing the bigger.more efficient path to success, but the jig is up on that game. I don’t believe the standard Christensen disruptive play is in order either, at least not the typical unobtrusive low-end play with high-end mass market potential. I do think what is coming will still fit the Christensen model, but in a different direction. Past disruptions have come in the form of unrealized opportunity. I believe the successful transformations will be the ones which start with the recognition of numerous elephants in the room. The elephants which make today’s economy structurally untenable. Entrants, and the few existing firms who are able to adapt, which recognize and design for emerging circumstances will emulate the photograph example in this post. The dinosaurs which are already locked into death struggles won’t stand a chance.

    1. Yes the Christensen concept holds (which is in itself amazing) but it seems like it’s not about big/not big but about being big is not big enough anymore (a phrase that Om Malik shared that he said I could make my own…)

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