Before flying out of San Francisco last week, I had dinner with some senior executives from multinational companies, at which the discussion centered around how business could best accommodate itself to emerging markets and the new high-tech universe. The conversation covered a range of topics, from where employees fit into the picture to why America doesn’t seem to want manufacturing jobs any more, causing me to go off on a diatribe about how most of our problems are caused by hanging on to outmoded models for solving problems.
Then, as if to illustrate my point, as I was walking through the airport with my iPad in hand, I just happened to pass a fascinating exhibit of old tube-and-antenna television equipment. To me, it brought home the fact that while watching TV has remained a dominant aspect of our culture, what was once considered state-of-the-art television technology is now a relic of a bygone era—a model that no longer has any practical use.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that what we have today is the definitive model in television’s development. In fact, in a column I subsequently read in The Wall Street Journal, writer Walt Mossberg, in reviewing the accomplishments of Steve Jobs during his tenure at Apple Computers, noted that the company responsible for inventions like the iPad is now rumored to be working on “reinventing the TV.” And I’ll bet a lot of people thought that had already been done!
All of which brings to mind the cover of a book I saw while waiting for a plane in L.A. on the same trip to San Francisco– one depicting a dinosaur with the tag line, “All my friends are dead.” When dinosaurs roamed the earth, they might have seemed like the end of evolution – yet they eventually became extinct. By the same token, ideas or institutions that may appear to be the apotheosis of invention or industry when they’re introduced, or even by virtue of their longevity, are actually only steps in an endless process of creation and development in which no achievement can ever be considered the ’last word” – and in which even old ones may be revived in totally new forms (such as the electric car).
Take the matter of how we handle society’s waste, for example (which I mention because it’s one of my areas of specialization). If we continue to think in terms of landfills rather than sorting and recycling, or of disposing of organic matter rather using it as compost, or even of waste as a necessary aspect of our endeavors, rather than allowing for a design that eliminates it entirely, we’re clinging to concepts already destined for the trash heap of history. The same thing applies to us – if your idea is that people must necessarily “retire” at a certain age, then you yourself may be used up at that age.
In short, any CEO who thinks that “we’ve gone about as far as we can go” (to borrow an Oscar Hammerstein lyric from “Oklahoma”) may well be at the helm of an enterprise that is headed for extinction.