Artificial Intelligence. Machine Learning. Driverless cars. Bots. Robots doing most of mechanical jobs. Rapid changes in technology. Half of current jobs getting redundant in less than 5 years.
Technological changes leading to paradigm shifts, disruptive innovations, creative destruction, government policies and several such factors that seem totally outside our control appear to be playing a major role in our professional lives. If you are in the job market today or likely to enter soon, it is likely that you would be watching all these developments with horror and utter hopelessness wondering:
- Why is the world changing so fast?
- What can I do make my position secure?
- How can I avoid getting redundant?
- What is my role as the world changes? Do I need to be a mute spectator or can I proactively do something?
We may not be able to control many of the changes in technology, but we can certainly control our actions and reactions.
Except for some rare event (and that’s less than 0.01% of events), individuals themselves and their actions (or inactions) have a major role to play in all outcomes in professional lives.
A deeper understanding of how trends work and how we can ride the trend curve can help us adapt to the business environment a lot better.
Let’s look at the organization trend curve
Let’s start with market movements that we shall called trends.
A trend can be in the form of a methodology, process, technology, automation, new way of doing old things or in general, anything that changes the status quo, from the subtle to the disruptive. Every trend leads to an advancement of mankind.
1. Financials were prepared manually for years (trend 1), they graduated to spreadsheets (trend 2) and thereafter moved to ERP (trend 3).
2. Performance reviews were tracked manually (trend 1), they moved to Bell curves (trend 2), and then get dropped in favor of continuous feedback (trend 3).
3. Lower level languages used for application development in technology companies (trend 1) get replaced with higher level languages (trend 2) and ultimately could get obsolete altogether with robotic programming and Artificial Intelligence (trend 3).
Trends in the industry follow set patterns that can be represented by a trend curve. Regardless of industry or geography, at every point in career, every individual is somewhere on the trend curve. The exact location on the curve has a large role to play in any individual’s career. Let’s study the trend graph.
Every trend starts with a steep gradient on the left of the trend. The is the phase when a new trend evolves and matures. This phase is characterized by 3 strong patterns:
1. With few early adopters, there is more demand than supply. Early adopters are in demand and are valued.
2. This phase is marked by glitches, trial and error and a lot of perseverance. Extra-mile mentality, high energy levels, a high risk tolerance are critical soft skills required to sustain and thrive in the phase.
3. An early adopter’s value is in direct proportion to depth of skill and quickness of adoption of the trend.
Once a trend has matured with early glitches have been sorted out, a steady state is reached. In the battle of survival, only the fittest of trends survive and 90% of trends don’t reach this steady state. Those that do, display the following characteristics:
1. With multiple people/organizations now involved with the trend, the demand supply curve flattens out. Only incremental changes happen in this phase and the gradient of the trend gradually increases.
2. This phase is characterized a “steady state”. There are fewer risks and proportionately lower rewards.
3. On-the-job learnings are enough to keep up with the trend during this phase.
This steady phase of the trend or its “shelf-life” doesn’t last forever. So long as a trend is able to fulfill the needs of the market, it remains a viable trend. Since market demands increase all the time, there is bound to be a time when the limitations of the trend no longer allow it to meet the demands of the market. At this point, a more efficient trend that is a better fit with the market demands at that point takes over and the cycle repeats. At this point, the old trend now enters a dying phase. Note that the dying phase of one trend usually coincides with the growth phase of its successor.
This last phase or dying phase has its own trends:
1. With reduced demand, the demand-supply curve shifts towards over-supply.
2. Most of the bad news happens in this phase. Job challenges (Job losses, periodic shifts in jobs, negligible to nil pay hikes, pay reductions), blame games, emotional disengaged workforce and worst of all, total obsolescence are some of the characteristics of this phase.
3. This phase doesn’t end the trend altogether: it just reduces the value and commoditizes work into a lower value activity.
This process of creative destruction involving continuous evolution of new trends and obsolescence of older ones is the primary reason for advancement of humankind. Unfortunately, this advancement is also responsible for most career challenges and feelings of helplessness of individuals. As surprising as this might sound, the third phase is never a bolt out of the blue. Its shadow lurks long enough for it to be noticed: The unfortunate situation is that it doesn’t get noticed at all or worse, is ignored.
Why then do individuals and organizations ignore shifts in market tectonics, knowing that not adapting could have catastrophic consequences?
Lets start with a historical perspective.
Trends are as old as mankind. Invention of fire and wheel changed the trends prevalent until then. However, with limited innovations and changes, the shelf life of earlier trends used to last centuries. Such centuries-long trends formed the bulk of our evolution and have been responsible for building a feeling of inertia or comfort-zone into all of us. After all, a trend that lasts centuries clearly outlives the productive life of any human being. Only a rare generation saw any major trend change during their lifetime. This evolutionary comfort zone or inertia built in predictability and stability in human lives and was one of the pillars responsible for gradual evolution of civilization.
The industrial revolution brought the first major change and reduced the trend shelf life from centuries to a matter of decades. The 21st century technology revolution has further reduced this shelf life to a matter of years and often, just a few months. With such rapid reductions in shelf lives, it is normal for an individual to experience multiple trends within one career span.
This rapidity of change and the resultant drastic reduction in trend shelf life has largely been responsible for most of our professional challenges and a feeling of helplessness.
During the steady state, most individuals who are riding a trend tend to slip into this evolutionary comfort zone. The benefits of the comfort zone are appealing. Steady (though not always satisfying) incomes, “secure” jobs, relaxed routines and predictable schedules are as comforting to humans as they are to animals. Individuals keep their self-upgradation limited to on-the-job learning, content with the current level of knowledge, not knowing yesterday’s lessons rarely solve tomorrow’s challenges. As time progresses, the trend that they are riding comes to the end of its shelf life … and now the comfort zone starts troubling.
Yesterday’s lessons rarely solve tomorrow’s challenges
With no upgradation or willingness to learn, individuals get caught in a rut and are unable to see when the next trend is about to catch up or the current one is about to die. For the few that can see a new trend catching up, the pain of having to self-upgrade and keep up with the times far supersedes the pleasure of staying on in the comfort zone.
There are a handful, just a handful, that overcome the lethargy and upgrade themselves to the next trend. For the vast majority though, the third phase of the trend proves suicidal. Struggles in job search, compromised opportunities, reductions in pays, uninspiring jobs, disconnected fits, uncertainty and insecurity in job are all outcomes of this chronic problem.
There is NO industry, job, level of seniority, size of organization or country that is immune to these trends. The only difference is in the trend shelf life: in the highly innovative industries like technology, the shelf lives are lower than in the traditional industries like agriculture.
How to escape the comfort zone?
Despite such rapid changes, how can one retain value all though one’s career and adapt to changes so often? How can one keep away from slipping into a comfort-zone?
There are 4 simple yet key points:
1. Understand where you are on the current trend curve right now
2. Study the trend shelf life
3. Observe what the next trend is
4. Keep up with the trends and upgrade.
These are hardly any secrets here and there are simple choices one has to be made. All information about current trend and upcoming ones is readily available in trade publications and even on the internet. Controlling one’s professional destiny requires timely upgradation of one’s skills to new trends while often unlearning the skills of earlier trends.
Here’s a thumb rule to be used:
For every 2 years of not reading the right subject matter, or attending trade events, your work experience increases by 2 years but your value to the organization decreases by a year.
The folly of judging an individual based on the number of years of work experience now becomes apparent.
Read trade books, enroll for courses, get certified often, join linkedIN forums and study articles trending in your industry, participate in professional groups in your industry and if possible, teach others. The best test of professional understanding is to teach others and answer their queries.
2. Cultivate a mentor: Regardless of how well you do in your career, there will be stages where the growth path will be choppy and emotions will be under stress. So a good mentor is required as a support system during bad times, right? Wrong. A mentor is required during good times more than during bad times. While any good mentor will play the role of sounding board, stretch you, offer counsel and help you arrive at your decisions, the vital role of a mentor is to keep you challenged and prevent you from slipping into a comfort zone when all is well. In short, vicissitudes of life can be faced a lot better with the services of a trustworthy and confidential mentor.
If Bill Gates needs a mentor, so do you and I. A MENTOR can Manage Emotional Needs To Optimize Results.
If Bill Gates needs a mentor, so do you and I
3. Association: It has been known for years that your knowledge, income, thought process and most importantly, your value to your organization is the average of that of your top 5 associates. Friends don’t always double up as successful professional associates. It is extremely easy to choose gossip mongers or loose cannons as professional associates: it takes efforts to cultivate a truly helpful association.
Again thumb rules work: If your current professional association isn’t stretching your thinking, that isn’t the right association for you.
If your current professional association isn’t stretching your thinking, that isn’t the right association for you.
The combination of the above 3 will pull you out of your comfort zones, keep you aware of every trend and prepare you for new trends in your career easily.
4. Soft skills: Soft skills is the only trend whose shelf life is infinite. The secrets summarized by “How to win friends and influence people” apply 100 years later too. The soft skills trend is becoming more and more vital with each new innovation: so much so that it is THE pillar on which all other trends stand. The higher your work-experience, the higher your soft skills play a role in your career success. Research shows that if a choice is to be made between two similarly skilled individuals, the one with better soft skills will win almost all the time.
The higher your work-experience, the higher your soft skills play a role in your career success.
Improving soft skills isn’t very difficult either. Go to the self -help or management section of any book store and pick up ANY book or audio tape: those will help improve your soft skills over-time.
Moving out of comfort zone and cultivating a habit of continuous learning are not very different from brushing teeth. But their results are astonishingly powerful: You can realize their true value when you hear others express helplessness about the next downturn, quibble about the change or spend sleepless nights worried about the next exits while you relax in peace knowing that you are prepared.
What if you DON’T feel like reading books related to your subject matter, hate attending trade events or dislike this whole mentor business? Well, then you are in the wrong profession and it is time for you to listen to Steve Jobs.
Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it, keep looking for it. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, You’ll know it when you find it.