The Irony of Time
It’s a secret that hides in plain sight: Technology companies are converging upon a single destination: sameness. This statement may seem outlandish. After all, how could anyone think that Google, Apple and Amazon – or should I say Google Home, Apple Home and Amazon Alexa – are the same? I am sure you get the point.

I reference the companies above merely for the convenience of familiarity, not because they are unique. The pharmaceutical industry provides another current example of this convergence: Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZenica and Johnson & Johnson all developed effective vaccines for a previously unknown virus within a year of its identification. Further, they did not simply develop; they tested, validated and gained regulatory approval, a herculean and massively complex undertaking. Moreover, they were capable of ramping production to a colossal scale seemingly overnight. Arguably, product development and manufacturing does not get any more complex or regulated than in the world of biotech, yet these four companies accomplished what previously would have been unimaginable. Examples of this functional redundancy are endless and are not limited to big tech and pharma. In my business, the commercial audiovisual industry, this sameness is equally pervasive. Today, technical prowess is seldom a differentiator, and even when it is, it’s highly perishable.

There was a time when specialized knowledge, skill and access to manufacturing capabilities represented a significant competitive and profit advantage; that time has passed. Today, the interval between product innovation and its replication is measured in months, not years. This fact, combined with abundant low-cost manufacturing capacity, results in a nightmarish competitive scenario – sameness never commands a premium.

So if specialized knowhow, technology and manufacturing capabilities are no longer significant competitive differentiators, what is? Leadership. More specifically, leadership with the ability to continually reevaluate and reimagine amidst an ever-changing operating environment, combined with the skill to effectively communicate and direct mission and purpose. It is the ability to motivate, coordinate and collaborate across multi-disciplinary teams and diverse communities that powers success in today’s competitive landscape.

It is ironic, after decades of technical advancement that carried with it a narrative of eventual human obsolescence, that it would be the human factor, our ability to imagine, lead and effectively organize around a common goal, that would be the definitive ingredients in the battle against an unseen foe. Encapsulated within this irony is also a potent truth that brings with it a vision for a brighter future. We are capable of achieving great things when we work together.

The events of the past year clearly demonstrated that it is no longer our understanding of technology and the natural world that defines the boundaries that limit our potential. The limiter is our inability to understand and appreciate each other along with our incapacity to coalesce around a shared vision. There is little doubt that societal conflict, ideology and an epidemic of misinformation, coupled with the failure to effectively communicate, hobbled a coordinated response to the pandemic. Yet even in the face of chaos and discontent the remarkable was achieved, as the world appears to be on a path toward recovery.

These are disrupted and unsettling times. Immense challenges lay before us through a transformed economy and evolving social norms, climate change and environmental degradation, and, of course, technical transformation. The future will not look like the past. The good news is that it will not be some outside force that defines the world in which we live. It will be us, you and me, and our ability to work together in pursuit of the previously unimaginable. It turns out we are the solution.

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Rick Thomas