Most people in advanced societies know by now that the pace of innovation is accelerating at an exponential rate. What a lot of people don’t know is how and why it is happening. In their just-released book, Big Bang Disruption: Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation, Larry Downes and Paul Nunes lay it out in easy-to-follow, clear language.
What’s more, since it’s pitched at business readers, it shows how you can be part of the action.
At the heart of the changes going on all around us are exponential technologies—that is, technologies that go up in capabilities and at the same time down in price. Information technology is the prime example given by the authors, as more and more transistors and packed into smaller and smaller space give us devices that are ever more capable and ever more affordable.
What this means for business is rather elegantly presented in the book’s central cosmological metaphor. Majorly disruptive innovations, say Downes and Nunes, can be tracked in four major phases: the Singularity, during which experiments in a given innovation seethe in a kind of primordial froth; the Big Bang, in which an innovation takes off suddenly and with potentially cataclysmic effect (even to the developer of the innovation); the Big Crunch, in which businesses and customers alike flee to the next Singularity; and Entropy, the cold, lifeless purgatory from which there is little chance of escape, even for businesses that manage to survive to that stage.
What makes this narrative so compelling to me, besides good writing and its undeniably cool cosmic metaphor, is its emphasis on the act of creation. Creation that springs not from isolated innovators toiling in obscurity, but in the context of a universe of suppliers, other innovators, and the individuals who make it all work if they bestow their favor: customers. The very concepts of innovator, suppler, and customer are changing as these people bring new innovations into being together and with a shared sense of purpose. In this light, innovation is an act of creation that can bring all us humans on planet Earth together. Okay, so I’m reading into this a bit, but this is inspiring stuff.
Anyway, that’s just the groundwork laid in the first part of the book. Part 2 presents actionable steps that businesses of all stripes, from major corporations to lone entrepreneurs, can take to be part of the next Big Bang. Wait—you missed that one? Never mind, you can be part of the next one. Or the next one. Or one of any number of disruptions surging into being at once.
Many of these steps include principles that I’ve written about in connection with my reporting on DARPA (with its long track record of success) and the emerging commercial space industry (still in the Singularity stage). For example, outsourcing. From the book:
“A closed corporate culture has become a liability; openness to new ideas and new partners has become an invaluable and crucial asset.”
“The Challenge for entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes is learning to shift research and development from inside to outside.”
In other words, the organizations that thrive in this age of what Downes and Nunes call Big Bang Innovation, are those that open their doors to outside collaborators—who may include customers–share their processes and innovations, listen to what is truly needed, and generally take the kinds of risks that can make the world a better place.
Ultimately, it all comes down to heart, something I’ve seen again and again the breakthroughs I myself cover. And that’s something you just can’t buy. From Big Bang Disruption:
“In our experience, the companies that thrive in Big Bang disruption are those that have the energy to work at the pace of a start-up, a venture investor, or a young entrepreneur pulling an all-nighter at a hackathon, fueled by unrealistic hopes and too much caffeine.”