The Speed of Thought

Some suggest that our problem is that technology is moving faster than our psyche. So I asked myself, is there a speed limit for technology? If so, who sets it? And is someone writing speeding tickets? I was as surprised by my conclusions as you’ll be.

While in Phoenix, AZ last month for the Information Architecture Summit, I had breakfast with Crystal Kubitsky, a very smart designer from Comcast, who shared a very smart thought: “Our problem is that technology is moving faster than our psyche.” We had been talking about the privacy issues I brought up in last month’s column.

The Sámi, one of the indigenous people of Northern Europe, say something similar: “Never travel faster than your soul.” They use this to explain modern maladies like jet lag (and probably other stuff like government-regulated reindeer husbandry). Anyway, barely two weeks after my chat with Crystal, I found myself sitting in a Polish taxi on a long drive from Warsaw to Copenhagen, as European airspace recovered from Volcanic Ash Syndrome.

Fifteen hours stuck in an Opel gives you time to reflect. (among other things, I’m now pretty sure my soul is perfectly comfortable at Airbus speeds.)

Speed limits for technology?

My thoughts centered on a simple question: Is there a speed limit for technology? If so, who sets it? And is someone writing speeding tickets?

The disturbing answers are “yes”, “yes”, and “yes”.

Now for most readers of this column, this makes no sense at all. After all, we want to grow and develop, which means embracing new technology. And we certainly don’t want to slow down. Anything else is unthinkable.

Here’s the nub…it’s only unthinkable to us.

I know CEOs who still have their secretaries print out their e-mail and then dictate a response.

The mere fact that you read this particular e-zine suggests you are years ahead of the curve when it comes to understanding the benefits afforded by online media. (That you recognize the term “e-zine” is also telling.) And there are three significant downsides to this:

– we often take so much for granted that we are unable to connect the dots for those who don’t spend as much time in cyberspace as we do
– if we do succeed in connecting the dots, the picture that results usually remains obscure to those outside our industry
– the C-levels* who should hire us remain clueless as to what we can provide

* CEO, CFO, CIO, etc.

The peril of incremental innovation

For the past decade or so, Clayton Christensen, Harvard professor and innovationist par excellence, has been preaching that companies that follow a path of incremental innovation ultimately lose to those that embrace disruptive innovation. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, here’s a good link . For those of you who want the bulleted version:

  • incremental innovation moves us from rotary to touch-tone phones
  • disruptive innovation moves us from landline phones to mobile devices

The first represents a modest usability improvement that speeds the dialing process. The second opens up communications possibilities for a whole new range of users who can use the product/service anytime, anywhere, plus new applications that help them take advantage of small snippets of time that would otherwise be lost.

Most traditional business leaders embrace incremental innovation. It isn’t threatening, it’s safe. It doesn’t require much special knowledge, it’s business as usual – just a little better. For these folks, a mobile phone merely means you can walk and talk at the same time.

And here we are, the movers and shakers of the digital age, trying to explain Twitter to someone worried about getting tangled in a cord. See the problem?

“Is there a speed limit to technology?”

I know CEOs who still have their secretaries print out their e-mail and then dictate a response. Don’t laugh, this happens more than you might think. In general, the over-forty crowd is nervous and seeks security; the over-fifty crowd spends considerable time forcing our unfamiliar online world into familiar offline boxes; the over-sixties wish all this would simply go away and hope retirement comes swiftly and uneventfully (the same way most of us view air travel these days).

Speed limits

Most C-levels are unwilling to accept that the processes that got them where they are today are probably not the processes that are going to move their company forward. We “online gurus” talk about all the marvelous things new media can accomplish whereas C-levels want detailed business cases that prove our view of the future is true. This is an almost impossible task as so many benefits remain undocumented and common sense is rarely supported by statistical evidence. Remember, a good business plan provides guidance, but it can never predict the future. As Bismarck’s Minister of War, Helmuth von Moltke, remarked: “No battle plan can survive confrontation with the enemy.” Many CEOs forget this in their quest for justification.

Challenge: show why adopting our recommendations, although not always provable in a business case sense, ultimately prepares a company to meet an uncertain future. Ten years ago, the buzzword was “future-proofing”. This is an argument that will be understood by those gathered in the boardroom. Show how the website or online application fits into the total brand package and why it needs to be part of the overall business plan, not just a supplement to offline marketing efforts. Airlines and the travel industry in general are particularly good at this, so draw on these for case stories.

“Who sets the limit?”

CEOs who insist on staying in the comfort zone are setting speed limits for technological adoption. And these limits will only be increased when enough other CEOs move from early adopter to early majority (to purloin Geoffrey A. Moore’s “crossing the chasm” terminology). This will probably take years, although I hope we can accelerate the process.

Isabella didn’t really take much risk, but CEO Ferdinand did by trusting his wife and Columbus. This took real guts!

I’m still amazed that Columbus managed to talk Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella into letting him sail off in search of a hypothetical passage to India. Granted, he had Isabella as a champion (much as we take a visionary marketing director hostage when trying to get a budget approved). Happily, King Ferdinand got the hell out of the way and let Isabella sell her jewels to finance the project. Let’s face it, back in 1492, sailing west to India had all the makings of a MAJOR disruptive innovation. And here’s the point: Isabella didn’t really take much risk, but CEO Ferdinand did by trusting his wife and Columbus. This took real guts!

If we are going to take the brakes off of innovation and help C-levels get the most out of modern communications, we have to remind them of the benefits of taking calculated risks – this ability is the hallmark of almost all good leaders. Right now, C-levels tend to listen to ill-informed advisers who advocate a course of incremental innovation. It’s usually the wrong advice and will ultimately harm their company, but it’s safe, secure, and non-threatening. And by the time the damage is recognized, probably no one will remember who made the fateful decision. Seen with CEO eyes, this is a win-win situation, at least in the short term.

Challenge: don’t talk about how you are going to do the job. Instead, explain why our work will help them achieve both short- and long-term success. Demonstrate the role of the website or application as part of the overall service/branding strategy. No matter what market you’re in, there is certain to be at least one major player who is doing things right. Check out your local telcos, for example.

Are there speeding tickets?

Yes. But not for going too fast. Rather, the market punishes those who move too slowly. Today, a corporate entity needs to address the needs of many groups – to ignore any of them is a recipe for disaster. For example, in addition to the usual product and service information (sales and marketing), there needs to be information for investors (IR), employer branding tools to reduce churn and facilitate recruitment (HR), plus the basic trustbuilding and credibility mechanisms identified by Stanford University. There are many more things, too, that don’t fall into convenient departmental categories (which, for most organizations, means there is not yet an “owner” who can be held accountable for most online activities – the web in particular. This will change.)

The danger of moving forward is far less than the danger of standing still.

In short, the C-level who only thinks in terms of marketing is going to get into trouble. Our responsibility is to make sure ALL the work is done. It’s not difficult to do if we’re given the resources; we just need to reassure business leaders that this use of time and money prepares the company to address future developments in a professional and profitable manner.

Challenge: show the C-levels that maintaining the status quo is ultimately a strategy for failure by using illustrations from related industries. Clayton Christensen’s books can help with examples. The danger of moving forward is far less than the danger of standing still. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Connecting the dots

No, we don’t want to slow the pace of either technology or innovation. There cannot be a speed limit. The problem is not that technology moves too fast, but as Crystal Kubitsky observed, the psyche cannot follow. Can we connect the dots in a disruptive world? Of course we can – but we must acknowledge and respect the concerns of the C-levels. We must use our expertise to help them do their job better in the future, not to trash their past decisions. We need to put them at ease, not expect them to become experts in our industry.

But to paraphrase a great tweet from @beckiemanley,  like Wendy in “Peter Pan“, the business community isn’t ever going to find Neverland if they don’t trust us when we tell them they really can fly.

Image by sundaune / cc-attribution

Eric Reiss

Eric Reiss is one of the pioneers of information architecture, having written the second book on the subject. He is a two-term President of the Information Architecture Institute, and Chair of the EuroIA Summit. Eric is Associate Professor of Usability and Design at the IE Business School in Madrid, Spain, and CEO of the FatDUX Group, a Copenhagen-based user-experience consultancy with offices and representatives throughout Europe and North America.

8 comments on this article

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  2. Eric,

    Really enjoyed this piece. I was particularly struck by:

    “Challenge: don’t talk about how you are going to do the job. Instead, explain why our work will help them achieve both short- and long-term success. Demonstrate the role of the website or application as part of the overall service/branding strategy.”

    It reminded me of a TED talk I watched yesterday by Simon Sinek ( — his premise is “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it” – The “how you do it” is something he includes between what and why. Very interesting concept about selling strategy from the outside-in vs the inside-out. Definitely worth a watch when you get 18 minutes.

    Keep the awesome articles coming, after IA Summit — reading your articles is even more enjoyable since I can hear you speaking through them.


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  5. Vicky on

    Hi Eric,

    Interesting article. To follow through on the speed metaphor though, I’d suggest that too many people are either driven away from (C-levels) or driven by (us) technology, when we must all remember that we should be driving it.

    As someone who works with companies that have often had very little awareness of IxD, I can say that most happily engage if they understand the reasoning behind it. Hey, Branson may allegedly not ever write email, but you can be sure he’ll jump at the chance to use various technologies if they’ll have benefit to his businesses.

  6. Well put, Vicky.

    It is exactly the “understanding of the reasoning behind it” that we must focus on. Who cares if Branson writes e-mail. What is important is that he gets out of the way of the folks who do – and as a result, Virgin has been one of the most responsive companies around. His book “Screw it, let’s do it” has many examples of how he backs up an idea, without forcing it into traditional models.

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