Insight article

Narrative and resilience in the age of acceleration

When Mayor de Blasio issued a cap to licenced drivers in New York city in August 2018, his language was definitive. Uber and Lyft, and any other ride hailing app that could appear in the future, are congesting our streets and hurting our taxi-cab drivers.  Every month, for six months, a taxi-cab driver had taken their own life; reportedly driven to the edge by the plummeting value of their trade in a brave new world of algorithmic transport. These symbols of Silicon success – so lauded for the ‘gig economy’ they unleashed and the job creation they spared cash-strapped governments – were, in fact, destructive. Their free market momentum – on which this heartland, in this nation, had been built – was in need of a leash.

The message was clear. We can no longer afford to be laissez-faire about the pace of change. It’s time to take a hammer to progress; to buy back some time; and hope that, in the interim, we can recalibrate – as governments, businesses, and individuals – to a world now reinventing itself at an exponential rate.

For Thomas L. Friedman, whose Pulitzer-prize winning ‘Thank you for being late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of accelerations‘ offers a masterclass in our new global rules of play, none of this will be surprising. “So many people today,” he wrote in 2016, “seem to be looking for someone to be put on the brakes… or just give them a simple answer to make their anxiety go away”.

Today, in 2018, Moore’s Law shows no sign of slowing. The compounding forces of exponential technology, globalisation and climate change continue to accelerate change in almost every facet of society, for every nation on earth. The collision continues to feel, as Friedman observed in 2016, like the gut-wrench we experience in an accelerating car: the dislocation as we hurtle through one set of natural laws into another.

Because while humans are adaptive, we adapt slowly. On a societal level, our ‘social technologies’ – the ways that we structure ourselves to ‘capture the benefits of co-operation’ – are now so far behind the pace of change in our physical technologies that they’re increasingly obsolete. It takes roughly 15 years for society to play catch up. But our technology platforms are transforming every five to seven. This is producing fundamental ruptures in everything from ‘nuclear proliferation, bio-terrorism, cybercrime’, to the quiet but stark inequalities produced in societies no longer able to catch or equally share the benefits of advancement. Add to this the deep damage done globally to our social technologies by the years of recession and cuts, and that rupture becomes even greater.

We’re racing to catch up even as we’re begging to slow down.

This is also profoundly true on an individual level. Not too long ago, it didn’t take much to be middle class in the western world. We lived in world of defined benefits. Today, the collision of globalisation and technology has dramatically raised the stakes for all of us. The hustle is now a world of defined contributions. The fixed point of the American Dream – a job for life, the security of home, a clear path to tread – is now, Friedman observes, more like a never-ending climb up a downward-moving escalator. ‘You need to work harder, regularly reinvent yourself, make sure you’re engaged in lifelong learning and by play by the rules – while also reinventing some of them. Then you can be middle class.’

And this pressure cooker has barely warmed up. Human skills continue to evolve at breakneck speed. Many are hurtling towards complete obsolescence; the most recent modelling suggests around 800 million jobs are at risk[1]. Simultaneously, we are confronting a global talent pool expanding at precisely the rate of digital connection. The ‘digital divide’ that has for so long limited ‘what you could learn, where you could do business and with whom you could collaborate’ will largely disappear within the decade. And this new talent pool is hungrier, more motivated, more adept at self-education; tapping in, for the first time, to the global flows of knowledge that leapfrog outdated educational systems.

This is an extraordinary shift. And in it lies, for all of us, nothing less than our future prosperity. Because when the digital divide disappears, there will only be one thing left: the motivational divide. ‘The future’, Friedman notes, ‘will belong to those who have the self-motivation to take advantage of all the free and cheap tools and flows coming out of the supernova’ – to those, in other words, who can embrace a state of continuous adaptation that optimises the right skills for our future world.

Because in the face of automation that will replace both repetitive and cognitive tasks, resilience lies in distinctly human capital: in communication, creativity, and collaboration; in the ability not simply to compute, but to empathise, to connect, to influence and persuade. These, Friedman argues, are ‘the massive, undervalued human assets to unlock – and our educational institutions and labour markets need to adapt to that’. They’re also assets that emphasise, more than ever, the power and necessity of narrative and storytelling as a primary skill and tool for every leader – regardless of seniority, industry or community – in a world that can no longer rely on old forms of power, or certainty, or security.

This is not an easy or natural transition. The chasms opened up by these accelerating forces continue to leave millions of people ‘desperate for navigational help and sense-making’ as they try to construct a new narrative that will help them recalibrate in this moment of great change.

And when this phenomenon occurs on a mass scale, a few big things happen. At a national level, democracies – dependent on the decision-making of an informed populace – cease to function. Populism rises as voters seek out the reassurance of simplistic world views and clear solutions. At an industry-wide level, organisations must contend with great swathes of apathy, disengagement and low productivity as people grapple to find their place in the new reality.

The emotional impulse, for all of us, is to simply stop; to dig our heels into our fear. And increasingly, we may see more and more governments constructing, as in New York, these moments of artificial relief. But the pace of change will not slow down. We must now accept that there are no more placid lakes. There are only rapids. And in the rapids, ‘every time you rudder or drag your paddle to steer you lose momentum – and that makes you more vulnerable to flipping over’. For businesses, for individuals as economic contributors, for problem solvers of any kind, the only solution is to throw ourselves into the currents: ‘to move as fast or faster’ and achieve a state of dynamic stability: a state of agility that no longer expects change to end at point B.

This is the challenge of our time: to build systems of true resilience into our communities. To win, we must reimagine the social contract between workers and employees, students and educational establishments, governments and citizens. It’s a tall order, and one that few of our leaders – of government and industry – have the stomach for in these post-recession days.

And yet there are shining examples of success littered throughout Friedman’s book. All of them share the pre-requisites for long-term behaviour change: a clear mechanism to motivate people, the provision of means in skills and tools, and the momentum to sustain the virtuous cycle. The most effective harness narrative as the mechanism to underpin, connect and amplify all three components.

In AT&T, the world’s telecoms giant, the advent of the iPhone and its role as network provider triggered an overnight transformation. To keep pace with the most innovative business on the planet, it would need to become a data business. To become a data business, it would need to rapidly reskill its 300,000 (mostly blue collar) workers. In doing so, it created a solution that today AT&T’s leaders call the ‘intelligent assistance approach’: a process which, at every stage, provides the blueprint for a mass-agile organisation of the future by ‘providing the scaffolding and incentives that make a new learning journey for so many people sustainable’.

The leadership team begin with a narrative that creates clarity and motivation. Every September, the leaders lay out a high-level narrative of journey the business will take in the next five to ten years, underpinned by the specific objectives of the next 12 to 14 months. ‘The idea’, says AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, ‘is to be totally transparent about where the business is heading and what the challenges will be.’ This is filtered consistently through the organisation so that, ‘by July, everyone has the message.’ By offering people an ever-evolving narrative to help them navigate shifting sands and re-connect to the purpose of change, Stephenson notes, ‘people say I get, I want to be part of it.’ The next question is ‘how can I be part of it? Those who decide they’re not up for the ride can leave’. This clarity of messaging means they lose 10% of their work force every year – but the space is filled by those who are willing to play a part and feel connected to clear sense of purpose.

Once they’ve created the motivation, Stephenson continues, it’s about ‘giving people the opportunity to pivot’: providing the means to upgrade their skills in an accessible, personalised format. Every employee is connected to an internal LinkedIn equivalent, where they can promote their growing range of skills and pitch for new roles. They’re provided with a personal learning budget, bespoke world-class courses designed with world-leading establishments – increasingly also designed to harness the cognitive impact of narrative and storytelling as a learning tool – and a suite of cutting-edge digital learning platforms. They’re given the freedom to pursue new skills and request new courses. In this way, each employee is empowered to play their part in the bigger story of change. ‘If you want to learn,’ according to Stephenson, ‘we’re all in because it leads to more engaged employees; that equals better customer service, more loyal customers, higher shareholder value.’ But the emphasis on self-motivation and autonomy is key.  ‘You can pick a different future and how to get there. But you have to optin.’

And embracing this continuous learning is designed to build a clear sense of momentum. Every person’s commitment is tracked through big data; those who learn more and better are put forward internally for promotions faster. As these stories of success are shared around the business, the desire to upskill increases. Stephenson is absolute in this intention: ‘people need to know that if I am clearly motivated to learn, I am going to get rewarded.’

The new social contract, in a company like AT&T, is this: ‘you can be a lifelong employee if you are ready to be a lifelong learner’.

The benefits are undoubtedly two-way. AT&T’s leaders are certain that this social contract is raising both the company’s average skill level and its morale. ‘We’ve taken our best and made it our average.’ Absenteeism down 30%, ideas are actioned faster and scaled through the company from any origin. ‘People feel more empowered, more connected, more engaged’. And it’s in these three words – if we can get the transition right – that we find the true promise of this accelerated age.

[1]McKinsey, 2017

Bex Felton

Senior Strategist and Writer