Sink or swim: How to survive waves of change in a fast-paced industry

Here's how to best position yourself for taking advantage of the unexpected.

RITA GUNTHER MCGRATH: A strategic inflection point, as I define it, is something in the external environment that changes the assumptions upon which a business is based. It's often technology but it doesn't have to be. It could be a change in social norms. It could be a change in a company's reputation. But the reason it's so important to see these things is that we all develop a view of the world and our view of the world is really based on the assumptions that may have been true at one point. But those assumptions guide what we think is going to drive outcomes in our business. When something happens that changes those assumptions all of a sudden it's as though our radar was off, you know. We don't really see what's going on in truth. And the longer an inflection point goes the more wide the gap is between our current understanding of what's happening and what's actually happening.

Now the reason for spotting them early is, firstly, obviously if they're going to change your assumptions you don't want to let that gap persist for too long. But secondly, if you get it right it can take your business to new heights. If you get it wrong it can be very destabilizing. And we've seen so many examples of companies that everybody thought were at the top of their game and within a couple of short years were just out of business or irrelevant or had to dramatically change what they were doing. Blackberry comes to mind in the handset business. They're still there. I mean they're still somewhat relevant but as the driving force in that sector they are no longer really in charge of their own fate. And that's what happens when you get an inflection point wrong.

You can make super smart, very intelligent decisions and still have a bad outcome. You can make horrific, idiotic, stupid decisions and still have a good outcome because that's how unpredictable things are. So I think there is a big distinction between forecasting and what I'm talking about here which is picking up weak signals, opening your mind to different possibilities and having the foresight to say, hey, maybe that's worth putting a small bet or a small investment or maybe it's worth going to that meeting or doing that experiment. I think it's more positioning yourself to be better able to take advantage of the unexpected than it is predicting what's going to happen. I think a lot of people who've made predictions have come to regret that because it's so uncertain. How do you absolutely know for sure what's going to happen?

So a lot of really interesting competitive opportunities are opened up when someone sees a change in the environment and moves to capitalize on it as an opportunity. A great one that is by now pretty well known but I think still illustrates the point nicely is the transition from movies that were sold on cassette tapes to movies that were able to be sold on DVDs. And if you think about it a cassette tape—now you're going to have to go back in history but a cassette tape movie could cost $50 or $60. We've forgotten that by now. We're so used to very inexpensive digital offerings we fail to remember that at the time that Blockbuster, for example, got going their selling point was that for much less than that you could rent the movie for a night or two and enjoy watching it and then return it and then they would re-rent it to other people. And the catch phrase at the time was 'Be kind, rewind.' —rewinding these cassette tapes.

So the beginning of the inflection point that eventually gave rise to Netflix was two things. The first was a technological shift which allowed an entire movie to be published on a DVD. And a DVD was a completely different form factor. It was light, it could fit in an envelope. And even though it was still pretty expensive the costs were already starting to come down relative to what it took to create a product. The second thing that led to Netflix being an inflection point is actually an evolution of digital business models. So the content creation people always had a very rigid system for say movies where the movie was first shown in theaters where people had the highest willingness to pay. Then it kind of went the rental route. Then it kind of went into movies you could have of your own. Then it was residuals. And in the early stages, production companies really didn't have a lot of ways of making money off residuals. Netflix said, hey, you sell us the rights to your residuals and we will pay you. And it became an addictive additional revenue stream for a lot of the content producers.

So that gave Netflix the ability to have all this content, some of which was pretty popular, some of which was pretty niche oriented, to really fuel the beginning of their subscription model. Now as we have seen plenty of people now observing the production companies have regretted that for a long time. And what they're now doing is they're going into competition with Netflix developing their own streaming services. So I think we're yet again seeing this inflection point coming around to possibly undermine Netflix's model where Netflix is now in the business of having to create hugely expensive content in order to keep people on their service, to keep people subscribing.

  • Why are companies like Apple on top of the world while others like Blackberry have been relegated to a minor market share? Why is Netflix king and Blockbuster extinct? Netflix spotted a strategic inflection point and capitalized on it, says Rita Gunther McGrath.
  • A strategic inflection point is a shift in the external environment that changes the assumptions upon which a business is based—it could be technology, social norms, or a company's reputation.
  • People and organizations who see inflection points early and respond to them with a small investment or an experiment have an advantage. They will swim while their competitors may sink.

Deep learning nails correlation. Causation is another matter.

Why do people with bigger hands have a better vocabulary? That's one question deep learning can't answer.

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Is NASA ignoring proof of Martian life from the 1970s?

One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
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  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
  • Because of other conflicting data, his experiments' results have been largely discarded.
  • Though other subsequent evidence supports their findings, he says NASA has been frustratingly disinterested in following up.

Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

Physicists solve a 140-year-old mystery

Scientists discover the inner workings of an effect that will lead to a new generation of devices.

Credit: IBM
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