Every day we read about companies that disrupt industries. Decades of momentum and market positions are wiped out in less than a few years and are replaced by new business models, new markets and new customers. One of the theories around this is “Exponential technologies”, including AI, advanced robots, automation, virtual and augmented reality, 3D printing, blockchain, biotechnology, quantum computing, etc. Technologies that double in capability or performance, half in cost in each period, and enable exponential growth due to massive network effects. Most of these technologies have, or will have, a massive impact on our world an might even be the answer to the biggest challenges of human kind. To decrease poverty, deliver secure and sustainable energy, global warming, education, health, politics, are all areas that will be impacted by these technologies regardless what we want or not. Exponential technologies are not only disrupting industries, it also rapidly reshaping our lives. Linear thinking can improve margins, market shares, efficiency etc., but it can also be costly to business when disruption hits with full power. Most of this is established and verified repeatedly the past 20 years, and even before that. But what is not talked about is the dawn of the Exponential Individuals. These are a new wave of individuals that have set out to disrupt themselves in the same way as business do, to gain maximal leverage for themselves and the companies they work for.
The common things for Exponential Individuals are that they look at their careers in a nonlinear way, and they look at their work and outcome as exponential. Such individuals are not only adapting the exponential technologies ideas but are also true exponential individuals themselves. Every day we read about these people that manage to disrupt not only the business they´re in, but first and foremost, they disrupt themselves. Individuals that decide to totally change career path, to look at challenges in a completely different lens and to build up a new network from zero, to be able to move beyond the linear. Exponential technologies are disruptive, so are exponential individuals. They put themselves in a position where they must disrupt themselves to reach exponential success, rather than incremental.
So, the big question is, how do they do this? Before we try to answer that question, let´s go back in history, because this has happened one time before and it created an exponential change in how we look at science, art, humankind. The Renaissance.
The Renaissance, or Rebirth (from the Latin word la rinasicta), is a period taking place from the 14th century to the 17thcentury that came to fundamentally change how the world looked at art, exploration, science, politics, etc., promoting the rediscovery of classic philosophy, literature, and art. Disciplines that had been lost or forgotten in the middle ages. Some of the great artists, scientists, philosophers and writers thrived during this era and laid the foundation for the age of exploration and exponential change of the world. Florence became the center of gravity for supporters of artists and intellectuals, just like Silicon Valley has been the center for technology and innovation the past 30 years. In Florence, humanism and philosophy encouraged people to be curious and to question old truths and doctrines. Individuals with exponential mindsets could go beyond the traditional, framed thinking. Leonardo Da Vinci created scientific experiments and studies of objects such as flying machines and submarines as well as studies of human anatomy. Eventually the Renaissance spread to Germany and perhaps one of the most important innovations happened when Johannes Gutenberg invented the mechanical movable type printing press in the middle of the 15th century. From then on, knowledge could be spread exponentially. The interesting thing about all this is that in the center of this movement was Exponential Individuals such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and several scientists, artists, philosophers, etc., that decided to step out of the box and traditional “careers” to go beyond what was possible and the linear. The influence individuals would have a big impact on several artistic and science disciplines and were able of crossing regional as well as intellectual boundaries that was never seen before. Or as Walter Isaacson so perfectly lays it out in the book; Leonardo da Vinci; “The mixing of ideas from different disciplines became the norm as people of diverse talents intermingled”. The revolution achieved by those masters consisted of asserting themselves as individual explorers, each one of them creating their own path to marvels, or what we today would call disruption which transcended boundaries of space and time. While the Renaissance was a cultural, scholarly and socio-political and science movement which stressed the rediscovery of antiquity, lessons can be learned on how these famous innovators, seekers and disruptors managed to change the world fundamentally.
A “traditional” career at a bank, law firm or even an ad-agency 30 years ago looked pretty much the same. You graduated from a university, you worked for 10 years to get you into a manager position and gradually worked your way up in the hierarchies to become a partner. At 60 you were asked to become a member of the board of a new smaller company. Today exponential individuals have their first CEO ship at 30, first board assignment at 35 and they have two, or even three careers before they turn 60. Exponential Individuals take leaps that could not be made before the millennium. Stretched out, long, careers within a large corporation with simply not exist in the future. Why? 80% of the fortune five hundred companies will not exist. A study of C-suite executives in Europe and the US has found a strong consensus that many of today’s Fortune 500 firms will be wiped out over the next decade. A study by McKinsey 2016 found that the average life-span of companies listed in Standard & Poor’s 500 was 61 years in 1958. Today, it is less than 18 years. McKinsey believes that, in 2027, 75% of the companies currently quoted on the S&P 500 will have disappeared. They will be bought- out, merged, or will go bankrupt like Enron and Lehman Brothers. Some companies manage to escape this mass destruction. General Electric, Exxon Mobile, Procter & Gamble and DuPont are among the oldest companies on the New York Stock Exchange. Nevertheless, the largest market capitalizations today have new names: Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft or Amazon. Tomorrow will most likely not be the same companies. We could expect new companies in biotechnology, space industry, autonomous cars, etc. It will simply be too much of a risk for your individual career to bet on one company and one career. Instead one must make sure to climb the ladder in other ways.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median job tenure for American workers age 25 or older has held steady at about five years since 1983, and for men it has slightly declined. Baby boomers born from 1957 through 1964 held 11 jobs, on average, between ages 18 and 44, says another BLS report. And studies tracking long-term employment from 1976 to 2006 paint a similar picture: The percentages of people who have been with their companies at least 10 and at least 20 years have fallen substantially.
Not everyone has to abandon the conventional, non-exponential path, of course. Certainly, if you’re working toward an ambitious and potentially achievable goal, such as managing a division at your firm or winning a C-suite job in your industry, disruption is unnecessary to the extent that you place a bet on a company that may, or may not, be there in the future and that loyalty may not pay off the way you expect. To disrupt yourself may be for the same reasons that companies must. First and foremost, it is about to head off the competition and to bring exponential value.
As you continue to improve along the dimensions of performance that the employment market has historically valued, you risk overshooting demands. What you do unfailingly, if not excellent well, can be done just as effectively by many peers — and perhaps more swiftly and affordably by up-and-comers, or even worse by someone better connected to the top hierarchy. Second, consider the greater rewards that disruption may bring. It’s true that much disruptive innovation in business tends to start out as a low-cost alternative to existing products or services, and of course you don’t want to embrace a career strategy that reduces your own value. But when you disrupt yourself, you vector to a new set of metrics along the exponential curve. In some cases, you might initially take a cut in salary and benefits, for a steeper curve along the road; after all, the endgame of disruption is higher demand for what you produce and a better position going forward. Don’t forget, that when it comes to personal disruption, compensation is not just financial, psychological and social factors also matter.
Individuals that embrace the exponential mindset will have a clear advantage in this new race, and individuals looking at a linear job progress is setting themselves up for failure. To be able to face this new reality individuals must disrupt themselves over, and over again. 50 years ago, an accountant graduating from a top university or a lawyer program at Harvard knew exactly what their job would look like and how their career path would look like. Today, they don´t even know if accounting as such will be replaced by automation and Artificial Intelligence in the next 3–5 years. Even programming is getting automated, and who knows when a doctor is no longer doing the surgery, but a robot with higher accuracy and speed. At the Coursera blog they post the impressive fact that they have now 35 million users worldwide. India has the largest number of learners on the Coursera platform after US. They see high adoption amongst learners in Financial Services (to no surprise for them, given the large disruption in the sector). Remember, it´s first and foremost individuals taking these courses. To be, or become, an Exponential Individual you must accept to be a lifelong learner and to see constant learning as a marathon, not a sprint. Keeping pace with competition and technology never stop in an exponential world. At the same time, it has never ever been so easy to get access to or to get a solid education. It is truly amazing times with a greenfield of opportunities to build careers that was almost impossible just 20 years ago.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost per year for the 2015–2016 academic year was just over $19,000 for a public four-year university. The figure jumps to nearly $40,000 for a private university. These totals include tuition, fees, room and board. The average for all four-year institutions comes out to $26,120 per year. This brings the total cost of attendance to an astronomical total of $104,480 over four years. The comparable cost for the same four-year degree in 1989 was $26,902 ($52,892 adjusted for inflation). This means that between the academic years ending in 1989 and 2016, the cost for a four-year degree doubled, even after inflation. At the same time, you can get several online courses and certificates to a fraction of that cost and a monthly subscription at Coursera will cost you around $50 and you can pay for the time you actually spend learning. To become a data scientist, you can take a number of free courses and specialized paid-for courses for less than $700 in grand total. Obviously, it is much in the hands of your own ability to learn on your own and the quality is sometimes questioned for these courses, but fact is that education at your fingertips is about to change the word and democratize learning in a completely new way. And more importantly, education is not something you do at the early stages of your life, but a life-long commitment to your own career.
We´re entering a period of hyper-learning which includes more experimentation more cross discipline learning and not least access to an enormous community than we have ever seen before. Now is the time when you for the first time in history can learn anything from anywhere in the world. Tomorrow´s companies will not care who you are, what university you graduated from or who your parents were. The only thing they will care about is: “can you solve this problem or not?”.
In the next six years we are going from 3,8 to 8 billion people connected to the online world. This will be a massive accelerator of problem solvers with competence in so many areas that a traditional education will simply not be enough. Or seen from another angle, the return of the investment from a top university will not give you the access you need to build your exponential career. Some may say this will also increase competition that will make it harder and more difficult to compete for a great career. However, as exponential individual you must look at the massive opportunity of more educated people around the globe to collaborate with, to share ideas with and to solve problems together with.
Whitney Johnson, author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, advocates for career disruption, not career ladders. According to Johnson, when people reach their career peak, they start to stagnate and become bored. They lose interest because maintaining is not as much fun as building toward something. Their creativity in problem-solving ability decreases because their thinking becomes habitual. Johnson says, “To avoid stagnation and to fast-track your career and personal growth, you should be thinking about changing careers every three years.”
One of the most fascinating, and scaring, principles with exponentiality is speed. Knowledge that you had yesterday is not valid tomorrow, companies you put your career into does not exist next month. This is true, not only for large companies, but also for companies highly involved in the exponential technologies. Silicon start-ups come and go as they try to disrupt others, they are disrupted themselves in a speed we have never seen before. The same thing goes for knowledge and education, hence the importance to gain “general deep knowledge”. We´re all familiar with the “10.000 hours rule”, the concept that if you spend 10.000 hours in a field you´re considered an expert. If you practice soccer enough hours you will become a good soccer player. If you study math enough hours you will be a master at math. That may be true, but that is not correlating to the world we live in. What use do you have to be a good soccer player if the rules of soccer changes? Let´s say you´re supposed to play with a much bigger ball, and it´s six goals and six teams on the field at the same time. You´re also allowed to pick up the ball with your hands if you´re leading the game. It doesn´t make sense, right? What if you study math so hard you know every equations and algebra you must master to work or teach in the field as the absolute authority, and then suddenly a robot with computer power 30 times your own can take over your job in a day? The rules of the game changes, and so must you.
Björn Borg is considered one of the best tennis players in history. The Swede won 11 of the 27 Grand Slam tournaments he entered, astonishing 41 percent. Borg was just 18-years-of age when he became the youngest player to ever win the French Open. In 1976, Borg won Wimbledon without losing a set, and became the youngest player to ever win Wimbledon at just 20-years-of age. 1978 to 1980, he won the French, and Wimbledon each year. In the early 90s, Borg attempted to make a comeback on the professional tour. Wooden rackets were no longer used though, and Borg was unsuccessful. New rackets had changed the game so much that Björn Borgs unchallenged experience and skills on the tennis court was worth nothing. And this in a sport where the rules have not changed much in the past hundred years. In fact, that´s why we don’t see exponentially effects in sports as much as we do in business. If we did then the results in sports would be exponential, and they are not. In a stable world lacking change we can solve problems and attack challenges by applying old, but redefined techniques and principles, but when the rules change such methods become obsolete and useless. In Björn Borg´s case a new “technology” was disruptive enough to stop his comeback, and the players that adopted to this new technology was the new champions.
This environment creates a lot of potential and possibilities, but in order to capture that opportunity you must change your mindset, goals, how you look at your education, ambitions, network and you must change at scale. The balance is obviously how to capture this to get short term returns and long-term exponential growth for yourself and the company you work in. To develop an “adaptable mind” will be of importance for individuals on their exponential journey. The ability to stretch beyond your core strengths when necessary and quickly rebound back to your core skills and discipline is a desirable trait. Elasticity is essentially responsiveness to change in an ever-changing world. To survive in an environment of constant stimulation and rapid change, adaptive thinking is essential. How you look at your education is a good start. Traditionally career-oriented individuals take a university degree in engineering, business administration, legal or whatever higher education they think they need to get into the market. Problem is that the market may not look the same when they start their program as when they end. Perhaps a more fragmented and diversified education would be a better choice. Combining some science with marketing and innovation program would make them more competitive than a traditional university degree. To understand the potential of a few exponential technologies, let say RPA (Robotic Process Automation) with insights of change management and how that is implemented in an organization will be far more valuable for many companies than a full degree in engineering. The online education destination Coursera founded by Professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng is growing every year with more and more courses and people tend to mix traditional education with specific additional courses to become more competitive. It´s a first sign of what will most likely be a much more diverse and fragmented education landscape going forward.
The world moves fast and to get deep enough knowledge fast enough it is more important than the full deep knowledge in a specific domain. Or to put it blunt, we don´t really know exactly what skills we need tomorrow and the speed of how we can understand and learn the new, the more advantage we will have tomorrow.
Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon is a good example. He graduated from Princeton University in 1986, worked on Wall Street in a variety of fields, founded Amazon in late 1994 as a bookstore online. That store rapidly grew into other areas and eventually also into the AWS arm. Just think about it. Not only did Jeff Bezos start one of the most hailed companies in the world, imaging how that company changed and how much he had to learn and understand building it. How many times did he have to disrupt himself and learn a new field? From bonds and stocks at Wall Street, to distributing of books online, to cloud computing platforms. Nowadays the founder of Amazon also titles himself a philanthrope.
We tend to see the journey of these companies but do not really understand the exponential individuals and force behind them. Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin empire, started in the music industry and is now heading the Virgin Galactic initiative, a spaceflight company developing commercial spacecrafts aiming to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists. How is it possible to move from distributing music to space travel? The simple answer is that, you don´t. To do that you have to disrupt yourself on the way. The list goes on, Elon Musk took a degree in Physics, created Zip2 a company whose business idea was to sell publishing software to news companies, moved on to found PayPal, sold it to eBay, started SpaceX, an aerospace manufacturer and space transportation company. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, NeXT and Pixar, but more importantly, reinvented and exponentially changed products over, and over again. Exponential technologies are disruptive, so are exponential individuals. They put themselves in a position where they must disrupt themselves to reach exponential, rather than incremental, success. None of the individuals are innovators, they are disruptors. Innovation is doing the same things better. Disruption is doing new things that make the old things obsolete. However, innovation must not be neglected or disregarded as something that is not good enough, but rather a discipline on the path to disruption.
Our new role as futurists, decision makers, and exponential leaders means we can’t trust on any rules or expect the rules to stay the same from one game to another. There are more stakeholders, disruptive business models, and faster market cycles. In this environment, elasticity is more important than ever. To stay competitive and grow your career, hence deliver value to your company or environment you’re in, you must be willing to disrupt yourself and rise above conventional and linear mindset. You become a core asset by constantly outgrowing your existing roles and wisdom. In all this, ingenuity is a key component. To challenge the old and seek new paradigms you must understand that the question you ask today may not be the answer you seek tomorrow. Elastic thinking (also referred to as cognitive flexibility by experts) allows us to shift gears and use different lenses to predict a disruptive outcome.
Elastic thinking, in combination with rational or logical thought, and creative thinking will make you indispensable. To make is short, the creative mindset must collaborate with the analytical mindset. To solve problems requires a blend of imaginative and logical thinking. As mentioned before, one of the first known exponential individuals, Leonardo da Vinci was curious about everything and everyone. He was a truth seeker and never stopped asking questions. His exploration wandered across science, art and politics. We know this, because more than 7000 pages of his notebooks still exists. The ability to tap information and ideas from anyone, anywhere is multiplying exponentially, and the implications include that individuals can be continuously connected and accessed to the latest and greatest information, science and cross discipline ideas, peoples and machines. The rise of crowdsourcing, sharing and collaboration also create a new type of organizations where communities, tribes and networks are the foundations for innovation and growth acceleration. In the center of all this are the exponential individuals.
Employments in general is undergoing dramatic changes, often summarized as “Workforce 2.0”. In the gig economy more and more people decide to be freelancers, hence the need for another type of “contract” with the people that is supposed to drive the change. Again, this contract is not about a long and lasting career but to help individuals reach exponential success and growth for themselves. And at the same time this new economy and workforce grow, the harder the competition gets. Individuals from all over the globe compete and those who can deliver exponential results or at least contribute to growth above the incremental will have a career that is completely different from traditional ones.
Hierarchies vs networks
It is said that the organizational chart is one of the first modern technologies though it enabled and visualized the chain of command, the accountability and the hierarchy of an organization. The inventor of the org chart is credited to the Scottish-American engineer Daniel McCallum and it is basically a diagram showing the relation of one official to another, or others in the same company. Hierarchies may be important in autocratic organizations where you need to carry out orders and to execute on someone else’s vision or orders. It is ill suited for organizations in need of change or where innovation is important for the organization’s future, for two reasons. Modern leaders and organizations need to adapt to a situation where loyalty is mainly built on passion and purpose, not a long career with incremental results, and secondly Exponential Individuals do not work in hierarchical environments, they work in networks. The network is more important than the hierarchy, the task is more important than the title, the diversity of knowledge is more important than the university diploma.
It is also said that hierarchies are attractive to us because we crave structure and routines that give us control. However, hierarchies have limited flows and rigid lines that is not build for collaboration or cross discipline growth, hence does not support the Exponential Individuals or growth mindset. The ability for large organizations to “replace” former high achievers that for some reason decided to leave the company for different reasons, will slowly degrade the very essence of competence and achievement as the long-term career path disappear, and individuals seek a purpose that is in line with expectations to create exponential change. The mentality, and culture of “there-is-always-another-person-next-in-line” will eventually have impact on the ability for organizations to even deliver incremental results should they not adopt to new ways of structuring their expected outcome.
Many people spend their whole life building up their network of contacts. In most cases the networks are very much within one sector or industry. Lawyers tend to network with other lawyers, IT consultants with other consultants etc. But to gain real network effect you must disrupt the way you look at your network and the purpose of such. Take some time to go thru your LinkedIn connections. How many connections do you have outside your “comfort zone” or that is directly tied to the industry or organization you are in. Most people have just more of the same and tend to not go beyond such sphere and network. One obvious reason can be that people does not really know why they have connected with others on LinkedIn and accepted invitations from colleagues and friends. However, think about it, let´s say your LinkedIn flow was instead populated with ideas, articles, people’s opinion on subjects that is not part of your everyday industry-dose, covering things you already know. Worst case is that you get some new insights and gain knowledge in areas that is “good to have” and not a “must have”. Best case is that in the intersection of ideas and insights from other disciplines you can create something new. There is no network effect to have a lot of connections. The purpose of connections and networks is just that, to create a ripple effect and to increase the value of your own work. If your network can contribute to your journey and at the same time yours to theirs, then you know you have the right LinkedIn connections. When collaboration, exchange of ideas and sharing is part of your network, then you start to move on the exponential curve, not if you count likes and connections of high managers.
Organizations that operate in a more traditional mode tend to respond to new challenges by adding functions and departments, setting up a new line of managers. As the organizations grow, their structure becomes more complicated and hierarchical. New silos are built, and decisions are consolidated to the top as the organization becomes less transparent. Exponential individuals respond to this by building informal network whereas a palette of ideas and competence create new ways of working to avoid processes and policies that slows down every decision, and hinder collaboration across departments due to budget, agendas, targets, etc. Organizations that allow and support networks, communities, tribes, and groups of individuals regardless of organization, that encourage individuals and teams to go beyond the hierarchies will also attract the most exponential individuals. Such individuals are more interested in the outcome than the organization. Empowered by digital platforms and ecosystems it is quite common that many exponential individuals choose to be entrepreneurs over traditional corporate employment and will be a scarce resource in organizations that will need them the most.
The reason is clear, as general tasks are getting automated, processes and operational decisions are carried out by Artificial intelligence, the real value for companies relates to innovation and exponential, disruptive change, the ability to create new things in new environments will become a core competence. The war for talent has just started and individuals that look beyond hierarchies and clearly defined structures, that grow networks and ecosystems cross discipline, cross education, cross culture and cross boundaries will have a clear advantage. Disruptive innovators will be synonym to success.
It is not only key converging technologies that will reshape the future, also individuals with a new set of tools and mindset to collaborate and join forces to solve the big challenges.
Individuals on the exponential path with the ambition to go beyond incremental results, must rethink the idea to climb the ladder in a hierarchical organization and rather seek opportunities and collaborations outside defined structures. Such rethinking includes not only power and authority that comes with a higher position, but also how to look at compensation, influence and self-development.
When exponential technologies meet exponential individuals, something happens. It is the perfect combination to create disruption or what we call Full Exponentiality.
Exponential individuals working with incremental technologies may be able to disrupt and challenge existing business models and create exponential change for the company, but most likely for themselves since they disrupt themselves, hence hitting the exponential curve. However, the most impact from exponential individuals is when they are combined with the exponential technologies. Daniel Ek, and Spotify are a great example where an exponential individual with high interest in music and tech use exponential technologies to disrupt the whole music industry. In several interviews and pods Daniel Ek has expressed his obsession with music and technology and how his personal interest and passion combined with the understanding of exponential technologies created the foundation of Spotify.
Incremental individuals tend to focus on improvements of the existing rather than the potential of disruption, because in their mind it is a “non-existing” possibility. Therefore, it is not sure that such individuals, even if they work with exponential technologies will create any disruption because it´s simply not in their DNA. Their imagination of what is beyond possible is based on a linear thinking.
Not everyone can or will be an exponential individual nor have an exponential mindset. At least not in a foreseeable future where organizations are not fully automated or “self-driving” with automation and artificial intelligence. Not all leaders have embraced the exponential thinking and are still first and foremost interested in incremental results. So is there a place for exponential individuals to work with linear individuals or organizations. The simple answer is yes. While we might wish that transition and transformation work smoothly, from point A to point B, that’s not how it works. However, the most important principle is not to hold back but instead unleash a growth mindset.
There is a third dimension to all this; the organization and leadership. The trifecta of exponentiality, especially in large organizations, is the legacy, leadership and governance structure as such. Repeatedly we see how large organizations try to introduce exponential technologies, and even bringing in exponential individuals, however if the legacy of the old, incremental thinking is rooted enough, the effects of full exponentiality will be limited to pockets of brilliance, but nothing more. Exponential individuals must seek organizations that can create an exponential path to success or face the fact that their efforts and ambitions will only create incremental results. In it´s very essence this is what digital, and business transformation in companies is all about. To pave the way for an exponential shift.
The tidal wave of change is not only rapidly impacting business models, demographics, workplace and society, change is not only constant but also exponential in its pace and scope, hence the rise of exponential individuals that can keep up and accelerate such change.
This is an excerpt of an ongoing project with the aim for a larger publication by Theodore Bergqvist. To follow more stories and insights please visit https://www.linkedin.com/in/theodore-bergqvist-45a6513/