Unsettled Conditions

Maybe “disruption” isn’t all that we thought it was

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

I was working at my computer. My wife was watching the news which hovered at a low buzz slightly beyond my awareness.

Suddenly the term “unsettled conditions” jumped out.

I didn’t know whether the news anchor was talking about the economy, our political process, most of our cities, or the weather. Or almost anything else from the big pictures of international events – wars, storms, civil disruptions and famines to the stress we, as individuals, families and neighborhoods, have been under the past year or so.

But that short phrase captures it all; “unsettled conditions.”

Being a “disruptor” was, just a year or two ago, the hallmark of an innovative doer, the “star” that would “get things done” or “shake up the system.”

So in 2021 we have disruption in virtually every corner of our culture and economy. And yes, “the system” has been shaken – in some cases beyond recognition.

Digital technologies, from Zoom to GPS and video streaming have overturned, inverted and obliterated entire industries – even categories of industries.

A few years ago, disruptive jargon and clichés, from “game-changer” to “conventional wisdom” populated our conversations and business plans.

“Don’t let a crisis go to waste” was a rallying cry for many.

And thanks to these “disruptive” philosophies – and policies – we had “crises” to spare.

If most of us spent most of the past year or so waxing nostalgically about a near mythical return to “normal”, maybe “disruption” wasn’t what we all wanted after all.

Our economic elder statesman Warren Buffet once observed that business breakthroughs follow a self-destructive, almost operatic stage, a three-act formula inspired and energized by the “3 I’s.” First come the Innovators, who launch something original, then the Imitators, who cash in on the idea, and finally the Idiots, who bring it all crashing down.

We Americans rarely do anything half-way. We tend to milk every opportunity to the last drop – or even beyond.

Obsessions gush through us and our markets like a rampant storm and then leave us behind wondering what happened.

Remember Fidget-spinners? They were the hottest item on the market; until they weren’t. And now we all deny any involvement in their marketing – even though we have a drawer-full of them. Somewhere.

Remember the runs on hand sanitizer? Toilet paper? Dr. Seuss books?

To put it mildly, these were not our brightest moments, and certainly not benchmarks of a healthy economy.

Maybe, just maybe, economies need to built on step-by-step, person-to-person connections and conversions that generate durable and sustainable progress rather than grand schemes powered by greed, scandal, and impossible promises.

What we need, as any gardener knows, are “small wins” – concrete, visible, completed, projects that may not, on their own seem like much, but added up, make a huge difference.

The corollary is what could be called a “strategy of small losses”. If we make a mess of things, or are overwhelmed by unexpected consequences, if we keep our eye on the seemingly little things, we can recover our equilibrium and momentum without too much pain or cost.

The “dogma of disruption” quickly becomes, like any dogma, fossilized and doctrinaire.

Remember the famous Facebook motto “move fast and break things”?

That pretty much sums up the past several years. From technology to racial tensions to economic upheavals to our political or relationship landscapes, who of us wants to live in an economy or culture of rapidly moving broken things?

The bottom line of any business, the customer, rarely wants to be “disrupted”. They want a product or a service. And they want to be treated fairly and respectfully.

Virtually everyone I know is more than willing to pay a fair price for what they want, but they don’t want to feel cheated or disrespected in the process.

And most of us expect some basic guard-rails of public behavior and career possibilities.

We expect our basic utilities to work, we expect our supervisors and leaders to treat us fairly and not take advantage of us, and we expect our legal system to be fair.

And we expect our grocery store shelves to be full.

And we expect vaccines to be available when – and where – we want them.

The balance of supply and demand seems to be perpetually out of balance. Demand, in many areas, from medical supplies and equipment to basic items, often outreaches supply.

This is one situation few of us ever expected to see; we might be in tangible, even borderline need, sometimes even emergencies and the supplies are not to be found.

Even medical supplies and vaccines have been counterfeited and sold.

This has been a very strange season, and the “disruptors” have made it even more difficult and costly – even dangerous.

The “disruptive” nature of the past few years, to put it mildly, has not taken most of us where we wanted to go.

I’m not convinced that “back to normal” means “back to the way things used to be”, but I do think “normal” means stable, coherent and relatively predictable.

There are many aspects of what we had before that many of us do not want to go back to, but a stable economy where everyone is treated – and paid – fairly, is looking pretty good to me right now.

For more details on the implicit hazards of a disruptive economy, I suggest this article – https://www.porchlightbooks.com/blog/changethis/2021/the-disruptors-dilemma?