The Distortion of Time
Issue 103, April 13, 2023
With our celebration and awe of emerging tech (think generative AI), there is a basic issue that we rarely consider: the distortion of time. What we mean is that we are in such a hurry to develop and adopt new tech that we frequently leapfrog over its actual relevance, usefulness or even its consequences to our organizations and business models. Let alone do we address the potential legal or policy issues that relate to the application and applicability of the technology to our society, and yes, to our organizations and even ourselves.
Digital transformation presents an essential problem: By the time we build, adopt or buy tech solutions, the technology is often outdated or is unable to solve new problems that have emerged. These new problems may have resulted from the transformation process itself or new ideas that we have advanced.
The most dramatic example of how quickly things change is our understanding (or lack) of the rapid advances in AI. Our government seems equally caught off guard by the ramifications of AI. A new reality check among legislators deepens the necessity to balance the forward-thinking tech leadership of our country with a consideration of regulations and policies that protect our people and institutions. Plus, we need to ensure that the AI train that has left the station doesn’t run off the tracks with unintended consequences.
Here’s a simple, but obscure, example of the time distortion of technological change. The James Webb telescope (revolutionary at the time) was not programmed to recognize exoplanets, because astronomers didn’t realize these planets existed at the time. As a result, such technology on the telescope did not exist and it cannot be reprogrammed. Obsolete science for today’s space advanced exploration at a hefty cost.
Now, can you think of an example in your own organization of a tech, system or process that has become obsolete though unintended consequences?
The conundrum becomes clear if you consider the time distortion in terms of the retail industry. Transforming legacy retail from centuries of physical commerce to online expertise is trapped in a time warp. Build, adopt or buy technology? Scott Friend from Bain Capital Ventures unequivocally states that retailers should never build their own technology solutions. And that can be extended to other industries. He believes that third parties are so much more informed on the latest developments and systems because they are part of an uber community fixated on technology. Individuals outside of that tech circle could never catch up with parallel expertise and skills. With a consumer increasingly making new demands, acting as the sole chief marketer for any brand and often disloyal to any one company, it seems an impossible task to serve this willful customer with tech solutions created from the inside. Certainly, it’s impossible with outdated or irrelevant solutions – and that includes everything from marketing communications and product development, not limited to technology.
So, here’s a real-life scenario. An organization buys and adopts what it thinks is the right technology. But perhaps it doesn’t completely understand its capabilities and promise for improvement. How does it know how to leverage the tech for success? Is this an example of time distortion when a decision that seems appropriate at the moment may not pan out over time?
Think of this in context of your own organization. Time is not on our side when contemplating transformation. We often miss realizing the full scope of knowledge that we need to inform change, the implications we must consider in implementing change across the organization, and the necessity of the workforce to understand, align and orient to the technology. And clouding the process even further is typically not knowing what you want or are going to need to serve stakeholders as they change their preferences at warp speed. For IT professionals, we believe that they can easily fall into the Alice in Wonderland syndrome, which is “a type of perceptual transformation in which time appears to pass either with great rapidity or with extreme slowness. Perception of past and future may also be transformed.” Our tech community lives with one step in the present and a mindset in the future envisioning an often radically new way of solving problems. Most of the rest of us are focused on what is possible in the present. Which is why it is so hard for most of us to communicate with tech visionaries who live in a what seems like a parallel but very different universe. And again, the disconnect we are describing is not limited to technology. These time distortion gaps can show up whenever innovation is ahead of the natural rhythm of change,
So, many of us who need to make critical tech choices or identify solutions for our organizations as part of transformation efforts and plans may be feeling overwhelmed and lost. As tech progresses, what we once rallied behind or understood as the right tech strategy can wobble once a giant leap occurs that upends our notion of what the near future can be.
How we experience time is a fundamental element of human awareness. “Our consciousness, our ability to perceive the world around us and, ultimately, our very sense of self is shaped upon our perception of time in loop connecting memories of the past, present sensations and expectations about the future,” according to Frontiers in Neuroscience. That’s a more complex way of saying that the ability to make the right decisions to anticipate the future, not catch up to it, is often trapped in what we know, not what we don’t know we don’t know (or what we may be apprehensive about) – and that’s where tech solutions live. Remember, inherently we seek comfort, security and predictability. Even when we seek something new, we still want some control based on what we know,
Racing to the Future
You may be sick of reading about ChatGPT, but it is a perfect example of the distortion of time that we are talking about. Launched with great optimism that it would accelerate the partnership between humans and AI, it has thrown society into chaos in a few short months. The technology conceived by OpenAI has been reiterated by other huge companies, plug-ins have been developed and many feel that it is a runaway technology without enough guardrails — or even a playbook – to implement safely into our daily lives. This is time distortion on steroids. A new AI tech application may be the biggest game changer in modern history, and it appears no one has anticipated how it is going to ultimately change our lives. Is it ahead of its time? Or is society at large so far behind?
There is another angle to the complex perception of time that can work to the benefit of any organization. A typical situation is an experience where one’s perception of time is distorted. Quick examples include being so engaged by reading a book, playing a video game, or writing a book (or the all-time winner, a casino) that hours have passed when you thought it was only ten minutes. There is a way to create an immersion environment that is so engaging that people stay longer than they intended. Clearly retail succeeds in this with experiences that keep customers in the store so much longer that they invariably buy something, anything, on impulse. But the same principle can be applied when your stakeholders are drawn into content, a conference activity or highly relevant conversations that command their undivided attention.
The opposite of this time distorting engagement is presenting so many choices that it causes decision fatigue. Making decisions consumes a lot of mental energy. Decision fatigue describes how a series of choices can exhaust people’s brains, and make them more susceptible to poor decision-making, or unwilling to make decisions at all, as reported by Medium. The point of all this is that manipulating (for better or worse) the perception of time can be a powerful tool.
The Transformation Process
At 2040 our practice is focused on change. Why is organizational transformation, including digital transformation such a challenge? We work with organizations to understand the process and plan accordingly. First, people operate at different speeds (personal perceptions of time). Second, the innovators out front championing change are ahead of time, compared to others in the organization. So, there is a distinct time distortion imbalance between forward thinkers and the rest of the workforce. Third, the early adopters believe that everyone thinks the same way they do, and confirmation bias can become a major hurdle. Fourth, most change is pioneered in a silo without cross-departmental buy-in. And fifth, perhaps the most egregious mistake is that tech proponents often push for new systems and processes, awed by the latest shiny new solution. Which takes us back to Scott Friend from Bain, cautioning organizations to seek informed, outside expertise. But to do so thoughtfully considering how all the parts of the organizational system need to operate effectively.
Transformation is hard, challenging and complex. It is not just the tech or the promise of the tech that inspires transformation. It is hard work orchestrating all the moving parts of the system, especially the human factors. That’s why we wrote a book, The Truth About Transformation, as a management guide to change.
Recognizing our humanity and our innate behavioral programming is the most important aspect of transformation. How we think, communicate and assimilate to transformative change is a process, an ongoing process. And transformation can be bewildering based on so many different perceptions of time including how long it takes. And that is the ultimate example of time distortion. Hurry up and wait.
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.