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Commerce In The Age Of Flux

Highlights from a Keynote by Robert Safian, Editor-In-Chief, FastCompany:

Generation Flux

Safian believes we are in the era of “Generation Flux.” What is Generation Flux? It’s both a time period and a group of people. The era can be defined as the current environment characterized by such a high velocity of change, while the people of Generation Flux are those who are wired to take advantage of, and thrive in, this era. Unlike other “generations,” the members aren’t defined by a specific age group, but rather by mindset. In business today, Safian notes, innovation moves so fast that some companies end up focusing on the wrong things. We’re in a “next two hours” era. Those who take advantage of the current climate and embrace it are the ones who are poised for success.

The Fluxers

What are some examples of those who have embraced the chaotic nature of today’s climate? Safian highlighted DJ Patil as a classic member of Generation Flux; Patil is an expert in chaos theory who has worked for everyone from the United States Defense Department, where he helped with threat assessment, to eBay, building their security apparatus. But again, Generation Flux isn’t just for those under age 40 or so. Bob Greenberg, founder of the agency R/GA, has been in the business for over 30 years, but owns the mindset to succeed in the Age of Flux. Greenberg has not been, as Safian put it, “stalled by nostalgia”, which is something that comes naturally to human beings. That reflex is not very helpful in our current climate.

Thriving in the Chaos

As for companies that have succeeded in the Age of Flux, Safian began by giving an example from physics. When you look at a quantum particle, he said, sometimes it will look like a particle, and other times it will look like a wave. The thing is, it’s both. And the companies that embrace this duality, the ones that are no longer singularly defined, are the ones equipped to succeed amidst the chaos. Think Amazon. Can we define Amazon as: A software services company? A consumer electronics company? A delivery and retailer? The answer, of course, is that it’s all of those things. We can try to singularly define Amazon, but that would be backwards thinking. Some traditional retailers have done a good job of adapting with the times, like Burberry and Ralph Lauren, who have presented themselves as current and relevant by aligning with technology.

Driving Change in the Office

If a company is to ride the waves of chaos into a prosperous future, they’ll need to change how they operate behind closed doors. These days, we’re all working in “figure it out” jobs, making it up as we go along, to an extent. This should be embraced. Safian pointed to the best example of forward-thinking corporate culture, Steve Jobs’s Apple, and four lessons learned from him: 1) Take your ideas from everybody: Apple married the engineering and design departments. Breaking down silos often leads to innovation; 2) Redefine the corner office: Re-defining the role of leadership and asking for perspectives from everyone in the company helps cultivate fresh ideas; 3) Edit and amplify: Make tough decisions about what’s important, honing the best ideas. Recognize what you’re the best at, and what you’re really about; and 4) Find your mission: Which leads us to the next point…

Put Purpose First

While the actual product or service, experience, and strategy still of course matter, many successful companies are finding that having a bigger purpose is just as valuable. Companies should look to employ an inside-out strategy: a purpose that drives your mission, and not the other way around. A purpose, like Chipotle’s “Food with Integrity”, should be at the core of the company, and should drive actions. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has said, “We do things because they are just and right,” with the purpose of advancing humanity. Of course, Apple makes a boatload of money. But they might not be what they are today if not for a clearly defined, broader-view purpose.

Fail, Then Overcome

If you’re going to be innovative, you’re going to fail. Comedian and late-night talk show host Conan O’Brien told Fast Company, when asked how he knows innovation when he sees it, “I know innovation when I’m completely confused. If someone does something around the office that just confuses me and angers me and makes me feel stupid, I know it must be truly innovative.” If we do things that will anger and confuse some people, it’s likely that we’ll fail sometimes. But, Steve Jobs dropped out of college and was fired from his own company, and Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team. And they both did some pretty spectacular things.

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