Don’t Learn to Plan, Plan to Learn

Innovations: Then and Now

We live in a time of unprecedented change and technological advancement. The rate at which new technologies, innovations and discoveries are occurring has never been seen before in human history. But what is different about our current era? Is this just a natural consequence of Moore’s Law or is there something strange happening now?

Thinking back through the ages, there have always been remarkable new technologies that change the way we work and live. Think agriculture turning our species from nomads to settlers, the Phoenicians and the modern alphabet, Gutenberg’s Printing Press facilitating the dissemination of information, the Renaissance reinventing cultures across Europe, the Industrial Revolution forever changing manufacturing and transportation. The list goes on and on. But I ask again, what is different about our current era?


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Traditionally, innovations in a particular field developed according to the following formula: a disruptive innovation would completely alter the paradigm and would be followed by a series of incremental innovations that slightly improve upon the last. These incremental innovations would continue until the paradigm is altered by the next disruptive innovation. Today, we live in a world where everything is measured and data is king. The effect of this information-enabled world is that the time between disruptive innovations is shortening. Moreover, disruptive innovations are happening in multiple fields simultaneously. Artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual and augmented reality, biotechnology, nanotechnology, space exploration, neuroscience, genetics – all of these fields are disrupting the world… right now.

It’s truly an amazing time to be alive; new scientific breakthroughs seem to happen on a near daily basis. Unfortunately though, they don’t seem to have an impact on our daily lives. I haven’t yet seen a sentient robot take my order at a cafe. I haven’t vacationed at Olympus Mons on Mars. I haven’t even downloaded a book to my brain. There are scientific breakthroughs but most have no practical purpose; no way of benefiting society at large and are merely a pursuit of academic prowess, right? If you are a business owner who agrees with that last sentence you may be in for a rough decade.


Global Positioning and Relativity

I’d like to illustrate with the example of GPS or Global Positioning System. GPS amazes me every time I think about it. At least 24 satellites are orbiting 20,000km above the Earth at speeds of about 14,000km/h. Putting aside these mind-blowing numbers, the concept is pretty simple. Each satellite sends out a signal containing the satellite’s current location and the time. The GPS receiver on the ground (nowadays, often a Smartphone) then determines your location by comparing the signals of at least 4 satellites.

Enter Albert Einstein. Most people know him for his theories of Special Relativity and General Relativity and the famous E=mc² equation but few would be able to tell you how they impact their life. Relativity seemed like an abstract concept with no practical application when it was discovered but today every Smartphone on the planet benefits from its calculations. It is in fact, fundamental to GPS. Allow me to explain…

The Special theory of Relativity states that a stationary clock will tick faster than a moving clock, this is known as time dilation. So from our point of view on the ground, the clock in your Smartphone will appear to be ticking faster than the clock on the GPS satellite that is whizzing above you at 14,000km/h. This means that the clock on the satellite will fall behind the clock on your Smartphone. But it doesn’t end there!

Einstein’s General theory of Relativity predicts that a clock near a massive object (like the Earth) will seem to tick slower than a clock far away from a massive object, like the GPS satellites orbiting 20,000kms above the ground. This means the clock on the ground will fall behind the satellite clock. So which of these competing effects wins out?


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The satellites are so far away from Earth that the General Theory of Relativity wins out and the clocks on the GPS satellites will tick faster than the clocks on the ground by about 38 microseconds each day. Now this doesn’t sound like much but keep in mind that for the GPS to be accurate, the on-board clocks need to be accurate to about 25 nanoseconds which is 25 billionths of a second! If the men and women that built the GPS didn’t take into account Einstein’s theories of Relativity then errors in determining location using GPS would grow by 10 kilometres every day.

This is just one of many examples that truly illustrates the limitless potential that our scientific discoveries provide us. Remembering that Einstein had published his theories over 100 years ago, it really thrills me to be reminded that even a century later, just how dependent we are on our achievements and the possibilities that our recent discoveries will bestow upon our future.


Think Different, Plan Different

Today, it doesn’t take 100 years for discoveries, inventions and innovations to diffuse into the business world, it is closer to 10 years and that time is shrinking every day. So as a business owner, what do you do? It feels like your current processes and tools could become obsolete tomorrow. A competitor could arise that offers a similar service for one tenth the cost because they use disruptive technology. How can you fight this wave of disruptive innovations? Simple, you can’t.

There is hope though… In the past, business plans set out what a company will do in the next five years. Now, it’s impossible to predict what sort of threats or opportunities will be present in 12 months let alone 5 years. Our planning must change. Instead of making business plans that set out what you must do, the innovative business will create a business plan of what they must learn.

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Create a framework for innovation to thrive: support experimentation, celebrate failures that teach you lessons, hire people who adapt quickly to change and most of all, continue learning. If you can set up an organisation that can absorb and integrate new technologies and is conducive to learning then success will follow.

Although some are now antiquated, I’ve always liked drawing comparisons between business and battle. Here is one quote that has stood the test of time:

‘In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable.’

Dwight D. Eisenhower

Written By: Patrick DeRuvo, Chief Innovation Officer

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