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Daniel Burrus, author of Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible. (Daniel Burrus)
Daniel Burrus, author of Flash Foresight: How to See the Invisible and Do the Impossible. (Daniel Burrus)

Good bye job security, hello job adaptability Add to ...

The following is an excerpt from Flash Foresight by Daniel Burrus.

(To read an interview with Daniel Burrus, click here.)

Not only do we need a vision for education, we also need to extend that beyond the schoolyard and into the workplace.

In the past, job security meant you worked for thirty years for the same company. Today you can’t even count on being able to work in the same industry for thirty years. In the face of job upheavals and dislocations, American workers are asking, “How do we get job security back?” But it’s not coming back, no more so than the vacuum tubes in our radios. The new value is not in job security, but in job adaptability. To thrive in the future world, employees need to have the ability to adapt to new and different jobs.

Our present school curricula are oriented by a rearview-mirror approach. When we baby boomers were in high school, our guidance counselors would show us a list of potential careers and say, “Have your pick.” Today that approach is no longer possible, because the hottest jobs of 2020 haven’t been invented or even conceived of yet. We need to be preparing our kids differently: we need to be preparing them for a rapidly changing world—and the same is true of our workforce.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. That may be true. Fortunately, we aren’t dogs.

In the past, you could graduate from school, learn a trade or a skill, and milk it for the rest of your life. The era we live in today could not represent a greater contrast. It used to be that if you had an advanced degree, you were guaranteed gainful employment for life. Today having a PhD simply means that you used to know a lot. Today it no longer works to get our education up front in one big chunk: we need to expect our education to continue throughout our lives. Singapore’s national educational policy talks about “lifelong learning” and declares that “the capacity to continually learn, both for professional development and for personal enrichment, will determine our collective tolerance for change.” We would be smart to use Singapore’s vision as a starting point and go beyond it. The human mind is infinitely upgradable by its owner.

In the past, what we needed to survive, thrive, and excel was a well-trained workforce. Not any more. Today a well-trained workforce produces only pain and protectionism. What we need is a workforce capable of being reeducated again and again.

Our unions are still functioning within the parameters of the old economy’s scarcity model: their goal is to protect and defend the job, using the old definitions of retirement and security. But “employment for life” is no longer relevant: today we need to develop employability for life. A twenty-first-century labor union’s job is not to make sure you are employed—it’s to make sure you are employable.

The twenty-first-century union needs to focus not on training, but on education. The difference is that you train someone to do a specific task or skill, while you educate them to understand why they’re doing that task and what the principles are behind it. Training prepares you to accomplish something in the present. Education, if it’s well designed, prepares you to adapt to change and accomplish things both now and in the future.

Not long ago, a CEO of a large company told me he was reluctant to spend the money to upgrade his people’s skills. “What if I do,” he said, “and then they leave?”

“I see your point,” I responded. “But what if you don’t—and they stay?”

Learn to Fail Faster

Part of living successfully in the new future is embracing a new relationship with one of our most valuable and underappreciated resources: our failures.

As a boy, I used to take the train from Wisconsin down to Texas during the summer to work on my grandfather’s farm in Telephone, Texas, the little town I mentioned in Chapter 2. It was a great learning experience, and one of the greatest lessons I learned was about change and failure.

Things didn’t change much in Telephone, Texas. I met my great-grandfather there just a few years before he died, near the age of one hundred. He had been a drummer boy during the Civil War. Back in 1890, the town’s population was about thirty; by the outbreak of WWI it had risen to about one hundred. It rose to 280 by the time I was visiting my grampa, and slipped back again by 1990 to about 210, where it still is today.

In an environment like this, when something changes, you notice it.

One day my grampa taught me how to ride a horse. As I was barreling along, barely holding on, the horse abruptly changed direction, and I went flying. After picking myself up and dusting myself off, I made my way back to where my grampa was sitting. He looked at me and said, “Y’know, son, it’s easier to ride the horse in the direction it’s goin’.”

A few weeks later, as we sat in the stifling Texas heat watching the motionless landscape, my grampa must have been chewing over what he’d said, because he now came out with a second piece of wisdom regarding a small project I was working on that kept failing.

“Son,” he drawled, “if the horse is dead, git off.”

Today, looking at the dizzying pace of technological change, this bit of advice seems more valuable than ever. The technological horses are galloping at a rapid clip, and if you miss it when they change direction, you will end up in some pretty deep dust. And the landscape is increasingly littered with dead horses—and knowing how to git off when the critter goes down is more important than ever.

The biggest problem with failure is not that it’s failure, but that we tend to do it in such slow motion, dragging it out for years or even decades, that it weighs us down and prevents our forward motion.

Polaroid saw that the future was digital, but it protected and defended its analog marketplace anyway, drawing out its massive failure and assuring its ultimate demise. Kodak failed for almost a decade. Motorola did the same with its analog mobile phones and utterly lost its market dominance. The major American automakers have been failing slowly for years.

Once we learn to fail fast—to recognize failure quickly and act on it immediately—failure shifts from being a liability to being an asset. In fact, it becomes yet another trigger for flash foresight.

A good example is Dell Computers. In the late 1980s, growing at a rapid pace, the company bought as many parts as it could. When technology abruptly changed in 1989, Dell was left with a huge inventory of obsolete memory chips, and they had to raise prices to compensate for the loss, which hurt their growth. In other words, the horses of technology-driven change changed direction, and they didn’t.

But Dell learned fast: that experience led to the company’s innovative approach to managing their supply process in partnership with their vendors. By the late 1990s Dell had reduced their supply chain to a less than eight-day lead, in contrast to their competitors, who maintained inventory of preconfigured computers for more than two months out.

In the company’s early days, Dell developed what they thought was a market breakthrough: a leading-edge line of computers sporting the biggest-screen laptop, the fastest processors, the best colors—the most, biggest, and best of everything. They called it The Olympic. When they launched it at the 1989 Comdex, it was an Olympic-sized flop. They lost something on the order of $170 million on something nobody wanted.

Realizing they had failed to find out what the consumer wanted, Dell soon abandoned their retail strategy altogether and refocused on the customer-directed model of custom design that would become famous as “direct from Dell.” They introduced online pricing in 1995 and started selling online in 1996, well before the rest of the herd. Defying the conventional wisdom of the day, Dell soon saw its Internet sales reach $1 million per day—and by the year 2000, $50 million per day.

In today’s super-accelerated environment, we have to completely reinvent the nature of failure. Rather than something to be avoided, we need to create a positive metric for failure and seek to recognize it as close to instantaneously as possible.

It’s no longer a question of whether you fail: the pace of transformation is so fast, failing is inevitable. The only question is: How fast are you failing? How fast do you recognize failure and regroup? Our biggest lessons come from our biggest mistakes. The organizations that are succeeding today are those that have learned how to fail fast—and who do not fail to learn.

Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Burrus. All rights reserved.

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