Alan Webber is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and was the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. He has worked in federal, state, and local government, writing speeches and focusing on innovative policy initiatives, and is the author of Rules of Thumb: 52 Truth for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self.
Question: How do we spot an inflection point?
Alan Webber: That’s such a great question because you’re right, the assumption is this must be what change feels like. I’m not sure about the question how do you know whether we’re in the middle of massive change or is this what massive change is supposed to feel like. We have a kind of a dashboard of change in our heads, in the way we receive information in daily conversation, in just the way we make sense out of the world. And when you see massive economic shifts, when you see people suddenly having to abandon long held standard ways of acting, when the old model doesn’t work anymore, you pretty much have to assume that this is what a transition period or what Andy Grove used to call an inflection point feels like.
And his definition of an inflection point; he was applying it to companies but he said that it’s that moment in time when the old assumptions and the old rules don’t apply anymore and if you simply keep doing what you’ve always been doing, you don’t get the same results and in fact, you get worse results. And so you’re a diagnostician and you’re looking at your company or your career, your country, the world you live in, and the vital signs that used to be able to be depended on for a certain set of frequencies or data points coming back to you aren’t coming back the way they did, number 1.
And number 2 then, the interventions that used to be enough to return them to what we would consider normalcy of the status quo don’t work. So you don’t get predicted results from predicted interventions and that’s a pretty good sign that the game is changing and that the old rules don’t quite apply the way they used to.
Question: How can we make the most of this current moment of change?
Alan Webber: Well, it’s only that I’m a different person which is probably the same thing ‘cause the world we experienced and make sense of is a conversation with the world and it’s not all just data but I think you’re right.
I wouldn’t quibble but; little more information about what was going on with my head in 1995, I had been to Japan in 1989 courtesy of the Japan Society of New York. I’m not sure if you remember the name Ezra Vogel but Ezra wrote “Japan as Number One,” Harvard Professor, brilliant sociologist and Japanafile. And he had nominated me for this fellowship to go to Japan at the peak of the Japanese bubble when Japan was buying up America, we were worried about our competitiveness, that was when the auto industry was threatened yet again or for the first time, so I spent 3 months over there and when I came back I sort of sounded like all those people who go to another country and come back and say, “I’ve seen the future and it works.”
I saw the future of competition, of business, of work, of technology and I came back with a perception that the world was profoundly changing, that globalization, technology, generational shift, and a shift in a kind of human capital how you create value, was going to change the world.
Globalization wiped away boundaries in national terms, technology wiped away boundaries in terms of how information can travel, generational shift meant people were no longer worried about putting food on the table, they were interested in how do you make meaning with your life, it was a generation that wasn’t brought up in the Depression, was brought up in plenty and so took, pretty much for granted, that we could make a living, the question was how do you make a difference.
And then a shift in, a kind of a, demographic composition, women, minorities, people who are not white men are suddenly running the world and playing key and important roles. And that was really the origin of Fast Company and what is the same today, I think, is a kind of a, not to be brutally book pluggish about it but when I started writing back then without even knowing it or knew rules of thumb for how the world was going to work.
Today, I would say the new rule of thumb, if I were going to start a project that was Fast Company-like, the rule of thumb is if you want to change the future, you have to change the conversation and that’s what you’re all about and that’s what your project is all about, that’s what Big Think is all about, can we get the voices of our time in all different spheres and zones of activity, engaged in a conversation that will ask new questions reflect differently on the moment we’re in and in the process of changing the conversation, change the trajectory of public and personal events. That to me is the work of the moment, that people are worried about will America, will the economy get through this problem? I’m convinced that we’re going to get through the problem, the questions are will we learn anything from it, will we have the kinds of dialogues and platforms for dialogues where we don’t just reflect on the moment of change but how to arrive at the end of the moment of change, having learned something that’s really worth learning.
Recorded on: April 23, 2009