If AI was supposed to change the world in 2023, it hasn’t changed it very much yet.
As far as I can tell, the world is pretty much the same as it was when the calendar flipped — aside from my Twitter feed which now features daily, super riveting headlines like “5 ways AI is changing this new thing!” and a link to a newsletter I don’t really want to read.
While the tech world is on fire with AI, main street looks a lot like main street always has.
It reminds me of an earlier time, one beginning somewhere around 2000 and ending around 2008. I’ve called it the “feature phone era,” which is a retroactively applied name to the cell phones that preceded the smartphones that we all carry today. During that time, there was a gradual change that happened before the monumental, societal shift brought about by every human on the planet carrying a palm-sized computer in our pocket with instant access to all the world’s information.
The “feature phone era” felt quite profound at the time, but looking back, it wasn’t that big of a deal. Sure, it was definitely convenient that most people had a mobile phone — you could call people in new places, you could even text if you had enough patience and thumb dexterity, maybe you could even connect to the internet for a few minutes if you were a millionaire who needed a new ringtone … but it was all sort of novel and quaint and the world was more similar than it was different.
Then the iPhone was released in 2007 and everything changed. Everything.
We now use phones at concerts instead of lighters, QR codes at restaurants instead of physical menus, digital wallets instead of real ones, and there’s an app for literally anything we could ever want.
And on and on and on.
With that in mind, the thing I’ve been asking myself a lot recently is: How do we manage the change before the change?
We know that AI will change the world in many ways, from drive-thrus, to customer service, to talent acquisition. But we’re not exactly sure how (or when) that titanic shift will actually happen — hence all those mostly incorrect and useless articles flooding my Twitter timeline.
Fundamentally, the challenge is that change happens, as Hemingway would phrase it, “gradually, then suddenly”. Humans, however, tend to adapt to change gradually and then, well, gradually — which means that the best way to handle change is to prepare for it when you first see it coming.
And it’s definitely coming.
So, what do we do?
Four things that have helped me prep for tech change in the past:
Yeah, it’s obvious. But learning about new technology is vital, even if you’re not a person that loves technology. Some basic fundamentals about how things work can make you a strong leader through change. You don’t need to know everything. Usually, understanding technology is less about grasping all the complex inner workings under the hood and more about knowing how it pertains to your specific company, team, role, task, etc. Think about this: In Super Mario, it doesn’t really matter how the Fire Flowers are grown or what they taste like — what matters is that they give Mario the ability to throw freaking fireballs. Real life tech works the same way. Leave the complexities to the engineers and just figure out how it can make you or your teams more powerful.
In technology change, it’s essential to think about the underlying needs served by current processes and technology and distill it down to the fundamental needs that are being achieved, so you can help rethink it in a different way. There’s a very famous Henry Ford quote we reference quite a bit at Paradox: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” At this point, that’s a technology leap over a century old, so let me reframe and use the parlance of our times: In 2009, if Uber would have asked people what they wanted, they probably would have wound up just inventing a faster taxi. But they didn’t, because that wasn’t their goal — it was to completely rethink mobility and transportation.
With technological change, transactional work is reduced, but work in designing processes with technology increases. Design early and often to be an expert when the impacts of technology changes are clearer.
One possible reaction to sea change in technology is to wait until it becomes widespread to see what the proven solutions are. There are cases where being a technology laggard can make sense (e.g., government), but there are also significant costs to being late, particularly when competing for talent. Maybe you think you can’t afford to invest in a new technology right now. At the risk of sounding cliche, my response would be: Can you really afford not to? Now is the time to be cautious, but not inert.
In the moment of change before big changes, it’s easy to be a skeptic or ground yourself in the status quo. But the gradual nature of human change versus the exponential nature of technology change means that it’s time to get started digesting the change now.
Look at that graphic up there. You are currently there. And I promise, you don’t want to still be there when that change goes up and to the right.