Seeing beneath the surface

Ever seen a hockey stick graph?

Sure you have. It’s the one where the line goes out to the right, barely moving upward, until suddenly, near the end, it bends and shoots up without moving very far at all.

There’s been lots of them published in recent years, especially from those worried about climate change.

What the famous hockey stick graph describes — regardless of what it’s “about” — is a phenomenon those trying to peer into the future have to wrestle with.

It’s a graph of a change that bubbles along “under the surface” for a long time before it finally breaks free.

Consider two cases (neither of which do we know the outcome for yet).

One is technological. Microsoft Windows.

If you go back a decade, almost everyone was running Windows. There were a few Mac users still. Linux was rare and not much talked about.

Slowly the hockey stick started moving to the right. Microsoft spent half a decade grinding its gears to produce Windows Vista, which landed with a resounding thud. (Deservedly so, too.) They quickly got Windows 7 out (a Vista you could live with). Then came the next big move — Windows 8, with its Metro interface designed for the needs of touch screen tablets.

Heard the screams of anguish? Go for a walk to your local “Microsoft store” and listen to people coming out having had a chance to play with the product, whether on a Surface tablet or on a desktop/laptop.

In the past decade, a few, and then a few more, and then a few more after that, had gone to Linux. It didn’t look like much, but none of those people are likely to even give anything Microsoft a look now.

In the past decade, too, larger numbers bought an iPod, then an iPhone, and now a Mac. How many? An organization recently surveyed its staff about training needs, and discovered that 35% of them don’t run Windows at home — which absolutely stunned their IT staff, who had merely assumed that everyone ran at home what’s on their desk at work.

If you wander around offices, or magazine racks, it still looks like a Windows world, just like a decade ago. (Heavens, there’s still the odd website out there that’s deliberately designed not to work with anything that isn’t! How’s your business doing when you keep throwing customers away?)

Under the surface, the curve of the stick seems to be ready to break through. If it does, all of a sudden, something we’ve taken for granted for ages falls apart. (In essence, that’s what led to the BlackBerry’s time of troubles in phones: the very prevalence of BlackBerry phones meant people didn’t see the building Android and iPhone challenge.)

Now, here’s the non-technological one. Politics.

The news looks the same as it always does. Thrust and counter-thrust. Poll and speculation. Analysis and debate. Whinge and snark.

Under the surface, there’s been a rather different hockey stick moving rightward. Stability.

Every year a few more people decide that politics is all noise and no substance and just decide that’s it, they’re not taking part in it any longer. How big is the “no show” voting population now?

At the same time, there’s great stability. Those in power tend to stay in until they do themselves in. The “so-and-so must go!” chants don’t translate into change at the ballot box.

Does this mean that we’re steadily moving toward a breakthrough moment when politics as we know it changes? Or is this merely a period where tactics can “hold the lid on” change until the impetus for change dissipates?

It’s hard to tell. Yet if you’re assessing your own future threats and opportunities, you’ll be faced with either one of these hockey stick situations more likely than you’ll face a clear and present turning point.

Unless, of course, you’ve left anticipating change too late, so that now you’re just reacting to it. Better to react intelligently and with some foresight than to jump blindly, of course. Far better to be just slightly ahead of your times.

After all, careers are made when the hockey stick rises. Do your diligence — and don’t be afraid to ask for advice and second opinions while doing it.

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