Prediction 5. In the future, command-and-control top-down decisions and actions will be increasingly ineffective.

A few days have passed since the last post. In part this is because my wife and I took some time off for a visit with my mother, who will be ninety years old this coming December. We had a good stay!

Several times during our conversations I found myself thinking ahead to today’s prediction – the last of the five challenges we can see in our future that are the inevitable result of two centuries of human success. Why? Because my mother’s example is pertinent.

Think about this: Women gained the right to vote in this country only in the calendar year she was born. Horses still outnumbered cars on the roads. She was two years old when Lewis Fry Richardson first proposed the possibility of numerical weather prediction in 1922. He gave it his best shot, using “computers.” [Back then, “computer” didn’t apply to machinery. It was a label for human mathematicians who made calculations by hand.] Today my mother is able to express her strong views in the ballot booth. She drives. She reads the New York Times online (and this and other blogs) on her computer – which is thousands of times more powerful, and considerably more compact, than anything Richardson ever envisioned. She watches C-SPAN. Sometimes they’ll feature climate experts, and then in our next phone call, she’ll grill me with penetrating questions, which I struggle to answer.

All that change, and much more, in a single life span! The human race has not achieved its recent success slowly, but figuratively overnight. A time short compared with the time required for 7 billion people to internalize – to take to heart – the changes in our circumstances. Our head knowledge tells us that the world is morphing daily, and that the future won’t look that much like the past. But our hearts and our guts are in denial – they’re still operating on “truths” we learned about how the world worked when we were about ten years old, give or take.

In short, we’re all living in the past! This might have been an acceptable least-regrets – or at least not terribly dangerous – strategy for individuals and societies to do business back in the day. But – fast forward to the present – nowadays, living in the past is a luxury we can no longer afford.

We’re challenged on two levels.

First, as individuals. Virtually all of our ancestors died in the same world into which they had been born. Social change was slow. Science and technological advance was hard won and occurred at a snail’s pace.

Today, by contrast, I spend a large fraction of my time trying to keep pace with social and technological change so that I can stay relevant. Chances are you’re doing the same, regardless of your age. A few years ago, one of my colleagues, maybe 20-25 years younger than me, was stunned to learn I was on Facebook. She viewed that as an activity for kids. Look at yourself. Chances are you’re in a continual process of reinvention, but even so, you’re aware it’s happening all too slowly. I still don’t tweet. 140 characters? You’ve got to be kidding! I can’t even get these posts much below 1000 words. But refusing to do that limits my social networking.

Second, as governments and other institutions. It’s a mistake to view climate change and problems like it as slow onset. These problems are emerging swiftly, in a time short with the time required for 7 billion people to recognize that they’re real, acknowledge that humans are partially the cause, concede that inaction poses an unacceptable risk, and agree on what to do. We’re still milling around!

The result? We can expect that top-down, command-and-control approaches to all of these challenges will tend to be ineffective at best and dysfunctional at worst. Several trends drive this. Consider three.

First, the historic role of governments has been to provide stability.[1] One symptom? A tendency to try to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s capabilities. Here’s a very small example of how that plays out, drawn from my world. When I used to work in federal agencies, a major concern was agency stewardship of environmental data. Long, uninterrupted data records – and archival of raw as well as processed data – are vital to our science. Every so often, we would compare past data rates with those coming on line and fret about whether data archival and retrieval could keep pace – as we always put it – whether we could “drink from the fire hose.” Somehow, these problems always seemed to lie just a few years ahead. We never quite arrived at the crunch. What was happening, to use another metaphor, was that the “rising tide (of IT) was floating all boats (not just the data sources, but also the archival technologies).” But meantime, we would flirt with options that were more expensive and draconian than would prove to be needed. More broadly, think about government preoccupation concerns with reorganization. Misplaced! In today’s world, actual, physical reorganization may be less needed since apps software can rapidly and cheaply create virtual reorganizations of information and services for users. Reorganizing promises a lot of upheaval, and risks returning very little value.

Think about this scenario playing out in millions of decisions and actions occurring on a daily basis. We’re always behind the curve…and the curve is sharply accelerating upward.

The upshot over many years? As little as fifty or one hundred years ago, companies used to rely on government for protection. Today, now that so much of commerce is global, governments are in the way. Worldwide enterprises are trying to do business in nearly 200 countries. They’re contending with 200 different tax codes, 200 incompatible sets of laws on intellectual property, 200 financial architectures…get the idea?

Second, social change and technological advance introduce many new ways for people to get information, and form their own opinions. Larger numbers of people encourage everyone to freelance, rather than respond to authority. Were your ancestors living in a small village? Even then, they could get into mischief when the chieftain’s back was turned. Today, these fundamentals operate at the highest levels. In the last days of his presidency, Harry Truman called the press into the Oval Office. “Dwight Eisenhower’s going to come in here,” he said, and “command, ‘do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen! It’s not like the Army.” Since 2008, both the Bush and Obama administrations and the Congress have tried in numerous ways to stimulate the economy from the top down. GDP and other indicators have made a feeble turnaround. But when 300 million people are feeling pessimistic and aren’t buying, and when thousands of corporate leaders are feeling risk averse and aren’t hiring, the stimulus has diminished effect.

Third, government leadership is in the hands of more experienced individuals. Experience for leaders still matters, but it is no longer the silver bullet it once was, back when social change and technological advance were slower. If I have experience, but my experience is writing machine language or even fortran code (does any reader remember that?), or if my leadership experience is confined to workers who are geographically collocated, versus dispersed, or to work that is all done in-house, versus a blend of in-house and outsourced, my experience is not so relevant to today’s world. The value of experience is diminished. I may still have the edge in what we call “wisdom” over my younger counterpart (wisdom has proven stubbornly resistant to efforts to accelerate it), but that’s my only trump card.

So…the old way is the best way? No way! And that is the fifth future challenge we face.

Five challenges? This is how it feels when things are going well – the subject of the next post.


[1] The best articulation of all this I’ve ever found is in a wonderful book by J.F. Rischard, entitled High Noon: Twenty Global Problems. Twenty Years to Solve Them. He begins his highly-readable account by citing three major world trends: Population growth, most markedly in countries least equipped to handle it. The globalization of business. And government’s attempt to enforce business-as-usual in the face of the first two trends.

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