Thinking about Change through Time

Continuing each Monday another section from my 2001 book, Hoover’s Vision:
When comparing today with yesterday, start by asking:
¨      What’s different?
¨      What’s the same?
¨      How did we get where we are today?
¨      Can we get any good ideas from the past?
Here are some examples of how you can use these ways of looking at today and at the past. They aren’t based on “research” but rather on observation and thought. They illustrate how considering change methodically can yield interesting, often useful insights.
What are the biggest changes in the typical CEO of a Fortune 500 company today versus in 1963 (when I started studying business)? Here is a starter list:
            Today’s CEO is more likely:
¨      to be able to type
¨      to be younger
¨      to have an advanced degree in business
¨      to have worked for more than one company during his career
¨      to have lived and worked outside the United States
¨      to be a woman or member of a minority
Can you think of other characteristics that differentiate the CEO of today from the CEO of the past? How do this changes change the way you lead your enterprise? If you sell computers or business services to CEOs (or business owners), you need to study this “demographic” just as Sears studied the location and nature of its post-War customers.
Here’s another question worth pondering: What will the twentieth century become best known for in the history books of the future? Here are some possibilities:
¨      A period of extreme global violence, with tens of millions killed in two world wars and dozens of smaller regional conflicts and civil wars.
¨      An era of the automobile, the airplane, television, computers, and the Internet.
¨      An era dominated by the United States and especially by its economic and cultural capital, New York City.
Which answer strikes you as most plausible? Why? Or is there a different answer that you’d propose?
Another question: What will the last 25 years of the twentieth century be best known for? Possibilities for 1975-2000 include:
¨      The shift in electoral votes and Congressional seats from North and East to South and West.
¨      The rise of sexual openness.
¨      The rise of entertainment, including movies, television, the Internet, and big-time professional sports.
¨      The spread and increasing popularity of gambling, legal and illegal. (Would you include day-trading in this trend?)
¨      The rise of Pacific Asia.
¨      The rise of global branding.
Notice how any answer you choose to any of these questions entails many assumptions. For example, if you think the twentieth century will go down as the most violent era in history, you are assuming, in effect, that the twenty-first century will be relatively peaceful by comparison.
At the same time, ask “What has not changed?” A great deal is written in the business press about the life of today’s road warrior, about frequent flyer programs and hotel amenities. Technology has altered the life of the traveling business person, of course. But the lifestyle of the road warrior is not fundamentally new. If you study the hotels and railroads of the 1930s, you find a multitude of references to traveling salesmen and other business people who spent most of their working lives traveling from city to city.
Many of us were born into a world where a reference to “The Big Three” in the automotive industry meant GM, Ford, and Chrysler. They were all headquartered within a few miles of each other. When we leave this world, there will probably still be a big three – but one will be in Detroit, one in Tokyo, one in Stuttgart. “Detroit” is exploding to become a global concept, and how cars look will be determined by a richer mine of images, from German Bauhaus style to Japanese simplicity. We are all better for it.
Think about your own life. What changes, innovations, and trends did you grow up with? I am old enough to remember the construction of the Interstate Highway system in the 1950s. If you are only ten years younger than I am, you are unlikely to remember a world without Interstates. On the other hand, I was born just as railroads were retiring their old steam locomotives, and all my memories are of diesels. As a railroad aficionado, I sometimes wish I’d been born just five years earlier! Do you remember a world without cassette tapes? Without CDs? Without airport security scans? A world with TV repairmen and their boxes of tubes?
If you market products or services to customers of different ages, understanding these kinds of differences is critical. It is even more challenging in the nations that are booming. In Thailand, Malaysia, Brazil, and Korea, today’s young people are growing up in an entirely different country from the one their parents grew up in.
Think about changes that are not in the headlines. How has your life or that of your enterprise been affected by the decline in fires in the US? By the worldwide decline in accidental deaths? By the decline in airline accidents? All of these are (beneficial) long-term trends that rarely make the headlines. There may be dozens of factors like this that affect your industry.
When Encyclopedia Britannica tried to sell their books door-to-door in the late twentieth century (as they’d been doing for decades), they eventually discovered two things: half the women had gone to work and weren’t at home any longer, and the ones who were at home were so nervous about increasing crime rates that they often wouldn’t answer the door. Did these trends affect Britannica? Don’t ask!
Think about the future in the broadest possible terms. To the managers and engineers at NASA whose work was severely curtailed in the 1980s and 1990s by sharp budget cuts, it probably appeared that humankind’s effort at space exploration had peaked with Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon in 1969. But the recent decline in interest in space is more likely just noise in the long-term trend. The odds remain high that our descendants will in fact colonize space.
Think about a world in which the United States is no longer the world’s most powerful nation. Think about a world where power, while widely dispersed, is increasingly centered in China. Demographic, economic, political, and cultural trends all point to this as a highly likely scenario for our future. In later chapters, we will consider the state of the world, and its future, in greater depth.