Surviving The Supernova

Whatever technology you are using now, there is a good chance that it will be irrelevant ten years from now. From the software you use for work to the hardware you have with you now. From the devices you use at home to the means you use to get from A to B. The world is changing ever faster. But can we keep up? Welcome to the Supernova!

Welcome to the Supernova

In his book 'Thank you for being late', journalist and publicist Thomas Friedman gives dozens examples of just how fast technological change is accelerating. Take Apple's iPhone. Released in 2007, it took the world utterly by surprise. Up until then, the internet was something you primarily accessed from your desktop. But along came the iPhone and its App Store. Within only a couple of years, it completely changed how we interact with the internet. Instead of browsing the internet from a web browser on our desktop, most of us now interact through a huge number of apps on our phones, watches, televisions or other IoT-devices. Take a ride on a train or a bus, and you'll see most people immersed in a virtual world that wasn't there before. In that same period in time, between 2005 and 2008, a lot of online platforms emerged that most of us rely on today. Platforms like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube, Uber, Spotify, Netflix, Airbnb and many others quickly rose to prominence, creating new markets, overtaking others in existing markets or putting markets on their head entirely (like Airbnb, Spotify, Netflix and Uber).

This rapid technological acceleration becomes even more evident when we consider that the cell phone started becoming mainstream in 1996. Within a span of only 20 years, the degree of connectedness multiplied, intensified and accelerated. 35 years ago, around 1984, we had only about 1.000 internet-connected devices. Historically, technological innovations often allowed for a few generations to get used to them, in what now only takes 15 years. Within only a single generation, we see many technologies emerge and become irrelevant.

Smartphones are just one example of the technological changes that we're seeing. Friedman makes a strong case that this is just the start. With rapid innovations coming from the fields of artificial intelligence, medical devices, implants, 3D-printing, cloud computing, renewable clean energy and financial innovations like Bitcoin, we should expect this acceleration to continue as technological innovations continue to emerge.

Being in the Supernova

Friedman connects this technological acceleration to a rapidly globalizing market and the impact this has on our planet. The internet has broken down borders, making it possible to purchase craftwork from all over the world with Etsy in only a few clicks. Or watch Japanese television shows on Netflix in Germany. Or connect with people from all over the world on social networks and computer games. But technological advances, population growth and globalization threaten our planet with the ever increasing risk of ecological disasters.

Together, accelerating changes in technology, the market and climate change drive what Friedman calls the 'Supernova'. Taking its name from the event of a dying (massive) star, the Supernova "keeps on releasing energy at an exponentially accelerating rate". The Supernova increases the flows of information and knowledge, the inter-connectedness and the complexity of our society. It is no wonder, says Friedman, that countries, companies and individuals struggle to keep up and resort to the safety of familiar things (like nationalism and traditionalism). Our ability to adapt can't keep up with the Supernova.

A similar point is made by economist Tim Harford in his book 'Adapt'. The ever increasing complexity of our world makes us yearn for simple solutions, experts to tell us what to do and (seemingly) strong leaders to show us the way. Just consider what is happening in the world right now, with populist leaders on the rise, ideological hate groups that simplify the world in 'right' and 'wrong' and something more mundane as the vast number of dietary experts that simplify the world of food for you.

But as complexity increases as a result of the Supernova, the value of experts, simple solutions and leaders rapidly declines. In his book, Harford quotes a large study that shows that predictions of experts (in economics, politics, finance, technology) tend to be only slightly more accurate than those of non-experts. So Harford, as an expert, makes a strong case for ignoring experts.

Harford then proceeds to show the many flaws of hierarchical organizations and centralized decision-making, and their complete inability to make the right decisions within the Supernova. Using different examples (e.g. the Armed Forces), he shows how 'Command & Control'-like approaches (the top decides and pushes orders down) fail to be flexible and rapid enough to adjust to the situation on the ground. They simply lack the kind of local knowledge that is required to make the right decision rapidly.

How do we survive the Supernova?

Together, Harford and Friedman offer a number of solutions to help us survive and adapt to the Supernova. It should be noted that both are quite positive about the future, giving lots of examples of successful organizations and approaches to deal with complexity. Its certainly not easy, and there are no 'silver bullets', but it is certainly possible to survive in the Supernova and even use its energy to grow.

The core of the solutions seems to lie in empowering people to use local knowledge to make decisions. Harford makes a strong case for 'Mission command'-based approaches to organizing work, which fits closely with Friedmans focus on forming small, diverse communities. Instead of making decisions at the top, and pushing orders down, the 'top' should concern itself only with overall, high-level strategy. The decisions needed to get there should be made by the people doing the work, in full confidence that they are trusted to do the right thing. A consequence of this is that organizations need to find vastly different ways to organize work, instead of just a few cosmetic changes. The age of the top-down organized company is rapidly coming to an end, as noted by Aaron Dignan from The Ready. Furthermore, we need to find ways of working that allow organizations to survive, and even thrive, on complexity. Scrum is one example of such a process. With its focus on iterative development done by small, self-steering Scrum Teams, and in close collaboration with customers and users, it offers one way to gain power from the Supernova.

Oh, and go read these excellent books.

Christiaan Verwijs
Christiaan Verwijs

Scrum Master, Trainer, Developer & founder of Agilistic