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When Experience Betrays You

Why traditional values may be our biggest stumbling blocks to innovation and global success.

We’ve been told, practically from birth, that success comes from being a good listener and following directions. Consistency is another highly regarded and very traditional virtue, as is learning from experience. But what if, in a world driven and dominated by fast-changing technology, all of this conventional wisdom is wrong?

What if past experience isn’t your best friend? What if it’s your worst enemy, because it’s no longer predictive of anything, and because it’s an impediment to the disruptive change and innovation that we need?

What if being consistent isn’t the smart thing to do, but is actually fairly stupid? It could mean that, in the time since you made your plan and started executing, you haven’t learned anything that required changes, updates, or dropping unproductive or unprofitable business.  As Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

Over the past few years, the flows of critical information, assets and resources have reversed directions. In virtually every commercial exchange, the information equation has been reversed because of the improved access that buyers have to group intelligence, shared opinion and pricing data. These were formerly controlled solely by sellers. To capitalize on this, we’re going to need some very smart people and a good compass--rather than historical road maps--to help us find our way.

We’re entering a world where we’ll pull information and intelligence from the cloud when needed, and where we’re in control of the information equation. Contrast this with the push model, where we’re simply passive consumers. There’s just too much information coming at us for anyone to effectively process the data and make wise choices.

But that very same information overload provides opportunities for companies that can help us decide what makes sense for each of us. Companies that can help us find just what we’re looking for will set the standards for search, because “knowing” is going to be an insurmountable task. Instead, it will be about knowing where to look for answers.

Medicine offers two great examples. First, in the old days, we picked a doctor (usually through family connections or other word-of-mouth). If necessary, the doctor told us which hospital he or she was affiliated with. That’s where we went for our surgery or other procedures. There was no choice, no shopping around, no arguing. In the near future, that order will be completely reversed. We will pick or be assigned a health services organization, and that company will specify and dictate our hospital, our doctor, and to a very large extent, our course of treatment.

Then think about how drug advertising has changed the relationship between doctors and patients. It used to be that if we were sick, we saw our doctor, and he or she prescribed any necessary medications. That ability - to write scripts - was the defining legal characteristic of being a doctor. Today, thanks to television and the web, we go into the doctor’s office and announce that we need the “purple pill” or a Z-pack. We saw it on TV, and now we’re experts. Doctors spend their time arguing with us about ads we’ve seen rather than telling us what we need and what we don’t. If we don’t like our doctor’s answer, increasingly, we can go to see a nurse practitioner or clerk at our neighborhood drug store and get our fix right there.

As the information around us expands and implodes at the same time, and we are all swamped in the unceasing flow of data, we’re looking at another major inflection point, or, as Yogi Berra would say, another fork in the road. It’s not very clear what lies on the path ahead, yet it’s obvious that if we don’t make some hard choices and just stand still, we’ll be run over. Where you head is less important than the fact that you keep moving and head somewhere. When you get to the fork in the road, take it.

Last updated: May 29, 2013


Howard Tullman is the CEO of 1871 in Chicago where, at the moment, 260 digital startups are building their businesses every day. He is also the general managing partner of G2T3V, LLC and Chicago High Tech Investors – both early-stage venture funds; a member of Mayor Emanuel’s ChicagoNEXT Innovation Council; and Governor Quinn’s Illinois Innovation Council. He is an adviser to many technology businesses and an adjunct professor at the Kellogg Graduate School of Management. @tullman

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