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Is the world spinning faster now?

At the start of many of my talks, I ask the audience: “Do you believe that change happens faster now than in the past?”

More than half usually agree. Over the course of the talk I can convince another 10–20%, sometimes more. But in many ways, it’s the wrong question. Or rather, it is insufficiently nuanced.

The problem is that change has many facets and can be described in many ways. In a previous post, I’ve described it as a wave:

The criticism of the theory [of accelerated change] is based on the idea that changes of greater magnitude happened in previous eras. Robert J. Gordonfocuses on the period from 1870 to 1970 (‘the second industrial revolution’) when advances in transport and domestic appliances transformed people’s lives. There were drastic improvements in mortality rates, and falls in the time taken to keep a household clean and fed. And much less horse manure on the streets.

It is impossible to ignore the magnitude of these changes. Has the impact of widespread internet access and the computer (in all its forms) been as great as the impact of the car? It’s hard to say without the benefit of historical perspective, and because perhaps we don’t yet know what will be the most important metric by which to measure the impact of these things.

But to try to argue that the computer is more important than the car is to miss the point. Here comes the science bit: it is to confuse amplitude and frequency.

Amplitude and Frequency

Amplitude and frequency are two of the characteristics of waves. Amplitude is how far the wave moves up and down from the baseline: how much does it change. Frequency is the speed with which it does so: how many times does it change in a given period.

The amplitude of changes like the advent of the washing machine is clearly very great. But the change happens slowly: the frequency is low. It takes a long time for such a product to be developed. For that design to iterate. For the public to adopt it.

Today, whatever the amplitude of the change, the frequency is much higher. We create, iterate, adopt and abandon new ideas and products at a much greater rate than at any point in history. We can see this in adoption curves for modern products versus those such as the washing machine: our hyper-connected societies spread these ideas much more quickly now. We can see it in the turnover of the stock markets: innovators displace incumbents faster than ever before.

If you are a business leader, or involved in the running of any organisation, then large-scale, slow change, may be challenging. But we have developed decades of business practice to deal with this. Most organisations have evolved in a world where change happens at this pace. Still, not everyone keeps up, but the planning and execution cycle have been built with this pace of change in mind: annual budgets, five year plans, ten year strategies and — for the largest businesses — twenty year foresight.

In a world of high frequency change, these schedules are insufficient. Worse, the tools used to conduct the processes at those intervals are not fit for purpose. They are time-consuming and slow, and often rather passive. That’s not to say that they aren’t important — you can’t do away with annual budgets overnight, and developing a twenty year vision is still a valuable exercise. But you need a set of tools — in fact a whole new organisational structure, that is designed to respond within the new high-frequency environment.

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Tom Cheesewright