Shift Happens: How the World is Changing, and What You Need to Do About It

John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Duleesha Kulasooriya have collaborated (in various parings) on three important bite-sized books:

  1. Institutional Innovation (Hagel, Seely Brown, Kulasooriya)
  2. Shift Happens (Hagel, Seely Brown)
  3. Scaling Edges (Hagel, Seely Brown, Kulasooriya)

Three Foundational Reads

These bite-sized gems were produced by IDEA BITE PRESS working with Deloitte’s Center for The Edge. In this post, I’m going to share my impressions of Shift Happens.

Are you moving forward or stuck in place (e.g., moving backward)?

Shift Happens provides current-state guidance for preparing for the rapid changes we’re seeing in organizations (or that we need to see in our own organization.) The authors (Hagel and Seely Brown) identify two key drivers:

The Rapid Adoption of New Digital Infrastructures

The Liberalization of Economic Policy

Each of the drivers is explained briefly but succinctly. In my own work, I see many companies (of all sizes and age) ignoring one or both of these drivers. It’s often long-term employees rooted (or stuck) in the policies and technologies that “… got them there.” who are ignoring the changes around them in their niches. I always find that in these engagements, leadership is thrashing and often assigning blame (for a lack of innovation and forward-thinking) to their teams when they would be better served looking in the mirror. (This is one reason I invested in the Agile Fluency Model training and certification, Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) certification and training and several more formal and informal training opportunities: To broaden and improve my vocabulary and vision to better engage leadership in addition to teams. Leadership is often the major impediment.)

The authors highlight how the shift is impacting how we: Socialize, Listen, Work, Develop, Study, Innovate, Collaborate, Watch, Grow, Think, Connect, Synthesize, Design, Analyze, Plan, Search, Invest and Choose. They’ve developed a Shift Index as a guide to publishing their findings by analyzing 40-years of data across 25 metrics: Labor Productivity, Inter-Firm Knowledge Flow, Stock Price Volatility, Wireless Activity, Brand Loyalty, Computing, Digital Storage, Firm Topple Rate, Internet Users, Bandwidth, Return On Assets (ROA) Performance, Worker Passion, Travel Volume, Asset Profitability, Internet Activity, Social Media Activity, Movement of Capital, Consumer Power, Wireless Subscriptions, Competitive Intensity, Migration to Creative Cities, Shareholder Value Gap, Return to Talent and Executive Turnover.

The authors share three key insights from their Shift Index. I’m going to share their findings and attempt to amplify them through my own experience and recommendations. I’ve been fortunate to have participated in several positive shifts, and I’ve also participated in several not-so-positive shifts (call them anti-patterns) on a not-so-good day. In these latter engagements, when my recommendations are not accepted and I’m not effective, I thank the client and leave.

Here We Go!

(Italicized text is original content from Shift Happens.)

Three key insights from the Shift Index:

  1. Value is moving from stocks to flows
  2. Power is shifting from organizations to individuals
  3. Performance is falling for organizations

What are the authors trying to tell us? One claim I’ll make: Moving, shifting and falling all portend volatility. If you’re not nimble and able to adapt in advance of your competition, you’re likely to fall further (and further) behind these shifts. You’re also likely to have an exponentially more challenging time to recover let alone excel and potentially, innovate.  Let’s look at each insight in greater detail.

Value is moving from stocks to flows

  • Extracting knowledge and expertise from a fixed set of stocks is no longer sufficient. Value creation now emerges from effective knowledge flows. What does this really mean?
    • Simply put, what you know is less valuable than how quickly you can learn and adapt
      • I meet very few organizations (and leaders) who are amenable to fostering a continuous learning culture let alone a learning culture attuned to adapt effectively (and to innovate as an outcome)
      • The default behavior I observe is that leadership and middle-management ascribe learning (and innovation) as a natural outcome of forming Agile Teams. This doesn’t work.
      • Many organizations (especially the ones who are confused but not reflective) are:
        • Siloed (versus Flexible)
        • Structured (versus Collaborative)
        • Closed (versus Open)
      • Embracing the Open Space Movement doesn’t make you Open…it just means you’ve decided to rearrange desks, chairs and walls (in most cases, unfortunately)
  • Organizations (especially senior leadership) no longer benefit from centralized power structures (although they perpetuate them.) Power emerges from decentralized teams and groups who are empowered to learn, develop, refine and deliver independently. What does this mean?
    • While individuals are using brand new technologies and even more efficient practices, organizations, (especially the big old ones), are struggling to keep up. How does this appear in the workplace?
      • Teams are being equipped with the latest software tools, computers and networks, while “leadership” continues to run retreats once or twice a year to decide what the teams will work on, how they will perform the work (“Let’s go Agile!”) and when the work will be delivered to Done
      • Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) packages are swapped out every 2-3 years often before their first Go Live (once lethargy + lack-of-flow meets a new, discounted licensing agreement)
      • Monthly review meetings (and weekly status reports) continue to drive (?) decision-making. Ugh!
  • Organizations are falling further and further behind smaller, more nimble competitors (and converting consultants to employees isn’t the answer)
    • Squeezed between empowered employees and informed consumers, organizations are facing intense competition brand disloyalty, constant disruption and stock price volatility. What’s an established organization (of any size and age) to do!?
      • The authors recommend focusing here:
        • Connect with your ecosystem
          • No organization is an island, even one with that is well capitalized and a market analyst favorite
          • Get out there and persistently and constantly engage customers, value stream partners and, yes, the competition
        • Focus on what you do best
          • Identify the one thing you do that on one else can come close to matching. Then amplify that and own it like you’ve never owned it before.
          • There are graveyards filled with companies who diversified their product lines or service offerings prematurely and failed to be recognized as #1 at anything
        • Evolve with technology
          • Always be searching for incremental improvements to how you do what you do (to plan, develop, validate and deliver your products and services.) I often meet organizations attempting to adopt a scaled agile framework using testing tools and techniques that are several generations old. Not pretty.
          • Some practices, tools and roles need to be retired (and often, not replaced) to make the delivery pipeline leaner, more transparent and more nimble. Don’t be afraid to do more with less. Committed employees and consultants will carry the load.

Are you faced with a burning fuse!?

Shift Happens … may seem intimidating, but those who can connectfocus and evolve will find stress from the Big Shift becomes enthusiasm and excitement for a dynamic world of new possibilities. I’ve worked in organizations that have embraced one or more Big Shifts (often from failing to adapt quickly enough over a period of years and facing a chasm), and it’s life-changing. These professional experiences set patterns that are repeatable…when other organizations recognize that they need Big Shifts and not a series of small, comfortable changes.

This booklet concludes with an essay by John Hagel elaborating on the Big Shift. If you’re responsible for leading or influencing development and institutional progress, you should read this essay carefully and discuss it at length with your peers.

For such a small booklet, this is a very impactful read. Buy a copy for everyone in your organization (really) and establish discussion groups.


Greg Tutunjian

Greg Tutunjian is a leadership and performance coach specializing in team-centric innovation. Greg is a former software and systems engineer, technical program manager and director, and now advisor to organizations ranging from small and medium-sized software product and service companies to Fortune 10 multinationals.