Mallie Rydzik, @MallieRydzik

Things move ever quickly in business these days.

I was at an in-person workshop last week, and I was the youngest attendee in the room by 25 years, easily. And that’s fine with me. I’ve had great clients who are older Gen Xers and even Boomers.

Age isn’t the Issue, Mindset and Relevance is.

You can be more relevant as a 70-year old than you were as a 20-year old, but the opposite is often true. So it takes more energy to stay up-to-date at 70 than it does at 20.

The speaker at this workshop was discussing how he approaches strategic planning for his own company and those of his clients: “Last year, my company tackled 4 primary initiatives, including automating our marketing systems.” Aside: To be fair, in one of my businesses, I specialize in automating systems for solo-preneurs. So, I was aware that my upcoming reaction may have been due to that major bias.

His statement hit me in the back of the room. Huh. I think to myself, “Am I trying to get too much done each year? I probably have various initiatives every 90 days…maybe I’m just being incredibly inefficient with my time and I should focus on quarterly intiatives….”

Then I hear a woman in the front row remark: “Wait, you did that and then ad 3 more initiatives last year? That would have been my business’s 12-month project!”

I was taken aback.

The other people near her nodded firmly in agreement. The speaker, who was probably the woman’s age, also seemed a bit surprised. My mouth mentally agape, I couldn’t help but wonder, “What are these people doing every day? Is this my future? One business initiative per year?”

Back when “business” first started, things were pretty straightforward. Kronk give you rock, you give Kronk meat (or Kronk beat you with rock). And we stayed the same for thousands of years before we complicated it with agriculture. And tools. And horses that moved faster than we did.

Growth in the use of Machines:

Then at some point we created rudimentary machines, and those were a relief. Then we made faster machines, and then we ended up with trains, and cars, and airplanes, and the internet…. Wars used to be fought hand-to-hand on the battlefield. Then we got some sort of crappy artillery, then some less crappy artillery, then we got flying machines to drop bombs on places, and then we automated the flying machines to go drop bombs on places.

Communication/Networking Change:

All business used to be done face-to-face. If you got lucky, you could get a connection to send a handwritten letter of recommendation by boat or horse to another businessperson in New York or London. Not because those were the only two places doing business, but because your New York buddy probably wasn’t connected with a Chinese entrepreneur at the time.

Networking outside your own city took a lot of work, so you were incentivized to move up the networking ladder locally rather than spending months travelling to and from a big city. Telegraphs and phones sped up the process immensely, but not nearly as much as the advent of the digital age.

Then, in a very short period of time relative to the existence of humans, we went from doing everything in person to doing many if not most things virtually. Or, at least, the younger “we” did.

Maintaining The Pace

The people who had already started businesses, for the most part, were going to keep doing what had always worked for them and their mentors. Just like the people who were around when the telephone appeared. But the telephone, unlike the internet, didn’t increase the pace of business nearly as quickly.

By the time many of these older business people realized they needed to catch up, it was overwhelming. Why do anything at all?

While previous generations of humans knew that the next generation would only increase the speed of business by 1.5x, the digital age came along and increased the speed of business by 10x or more!

Let’s say the Industrial Revolution did a 3x on the pace of business. What were the negative results of that (other than pollution and poor treatment of the labor force)? Artisans and small business owners were put out of work because they couldn’t keep up. When factory farming came along, it wiped out many family farms. When cars came along, they wiped out the horse and buggy.

Will this be the legacy of the internet age? Can traditional businesses obtain then maintain this pace?

What To Consider:

I left the workshop with some new perspectives on strategic planning (which, of course, was the purpose of the workshop in the first place), but I left with even more thoughts on the future of business in a digital age.

Assuming no issues with the semantics of what constitutes an “initiative,” which of us was “right” about the number of business initiatives to tackle in a year? The speaker with quarterly goals (probably), the people up front with one initiative per year, or yours truly with double the amount of the speaker’s initiatives?

Will businesses be able to survive in 20 years at the one initiative pace? The two initiative pace? Should they be able to? Will the “lifestyle business” trend balance the frenetic pace of startups and online business?

What happens when the digital natives are in their 60s? Will we return to 1.5x changes between generations because the Millennials and young Gen Xers are comfortable staying relevant on technology? Or will something come along to 10x it again?

And, perhaps most importantly, what happens to those who will continue to do things the way they’ve always been done? If they become obsolete, do they deserve their fate any more than the family famers or the artisans of the Industrial Revolution? Can we, and should we, slow down the pace of internet-driven business?