In my book, High Frequency Change, I laid out the argument for why we feel like change happens faster now. According to a poll of over 2,000 adults I commissioned from YouGov, 69% of people feel like change is happening faster now than 20 years ago. Some things clearly are moving at an incredible pace. But you only have to look around to realise that somethings have changed very little. High frequency change doesn’t affect everything – at least not at the same time. Beds, baths, and buildings for example. Or clothes, schools, or shoes. There have been marginal changes in all of these. Some of them have even felt quite dramatic. But they largely look and operate as they did twenty years ago, unlike say, television, music, or personal computing.
What are the differences between these different domains? Why are some subject to high frequency change and others not – or at least, not yet? There are a few damping factors that slow the frequency of change in a domain. These include:
Change can be expensive. Sometimes it is hard to raise enough capital to drive change through, especially when the industry you want to disrupt looks firmly entrenched and it is hard to make clear the scale of the opportunity. Construction is a good example. There have been changes in the materials used over the last twenty years and in some of the building techniques. But nowhere near as radical or as widespread as they could have been. There are other factors at work here (culture, safety), but capital is one of the most important. Building is expensive, and it is a relatively low-margin exercise. If you want to disrupt the construction industry, you have to convince someone to give you lots of money and to do that, show that you will make much better returns than the established competition.
Big companies frequently rail against ‘red tape’. But behind the scenes they are frequently lobbying for more of it. Why? Because it makes it harder for new entrants into the market to compete. Compliance is expensive, and that’s before you get into regulations that specifically require a level of financial stability to even compete for contracts. Regulations are rarely there to protect incumbents. They often have good purposes, like protecting the consumer or government procurers. But they frequently operate to entrench incumbent positions and defend them from disruption. The more highly-regulated a market, the less likely it will be affected by high frequency change. Just look how long it took for digital challengers to begin to disrupt the established players in retail banking – somewhere that there was clear opportunity and disgruntled customers.
Control of the primary and secondary education system in the UK is highly centralised. Too centralised, I would argue. The result is frequent upheaval driven by political whim but not what you could call high frequency change. There is too little opportunity for small-scale and high speed innovation, and for that innovation to then spread from school to school. It happens, but the changes tend to be marginal rather than revolutionary. Centralisation where there is true power at the core, is a good defence against high frequency change. Though that’s not always a positive…
People can block change. Because it scares them or because it disadvantages them, or because they’re just lazy. I don’t buy into the idea that humans intrinsically hate change. I just think that by the time we’re in our 30s or 40s, lots of our experience of change – particularly in the workplace – has been more negative than positive. Instinctively rejecting it is a learned response. When you get an alignment of the powers in a company or industry, all of whom feel they would be disadvantaged by change, then it can slow that change dramatically. But it tends not to stop it. Rather, when the change comes, it is all the more dramatic. I think there is some argument this happened in local authorities. There were lots of good reasons to make quite dramatic changes pre-austerity that had been deferred. Austerity forced them through. I don’t think this is an argument that austerity was somehow a good thing or ultimately necessary: the ideal would have been reforms without drastic cuts to public service. Instead, people were able to make the case that austerity was a necessary shock to local authorities because of the reforms it drove through.
Sometimes there is no good alternative to displace the established product or service. Beyond marginal changes in mattress materials and duvet filler, there has been very little change to the bed in a hundred years. But what would you change? No-one has invented a different way of sleeping. Same for the shower. Ultrasonic showers are fine for science fiction but they’re not a realistic alternative to a good old spray of water just yet.
Sometimes people are conservative for really good reasons, particularly when established procedures and processes are there for reasons of safety. It’s hard to change a tried and trusted design when you know alternatives might kill people. That means it takes a long time to gain support for any change.
These are some of the main reasons that high frequency change doesn’t affect everything. But there are more. Ultimately most barriers to change will fall. If enough fall and if there is enough connectivity and innovation in a market, it is likely to be subject to high frequency change.