Nothing Lasts Forever

Nancy and I spend the day yesterday looking at what’s left of Hadrian’s Wall. It was a fascinating day. Around 200 A.D. the wall went for about 75 miles across the UK, with forts all the way along. This is what the fort at Birdoswald looks like now:

Seeing this makes me understand why it would be someone from the UK that could write Ozymandias:


By Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

I think it’s important for people interested in innovation to think about the ruins of empires. Why? Because nothing lasts forever – especially in business. This means that our innovations have use-by dates – but it’s hard to know in advance how long they’ll last.

There are two ways to respond to this. One is to figure that since nothing lasts, you better get as much as you can now. Let’s call this the BP approach.

I think this is wrong. The better response to the limited life of our innovations is to try to make them as good as possible – to aim for developing ideas that will last as long as possible. Going for the quick hit is the easy way out – and, importantly, the odds of things going wrong while you’re still around are high.

As business lifecycles get shorter, we need to make sure that our ideas are built to last. We can do this by doing our best to ensure that we are meeting genuine needs, in ways that are sustainable. Not every idea will work for hundreds of years, like the plant press for botanists – and this is why we need to take people like Umair Haque seriously. The correct response to the limited life of our innovations is to aim for betterness:

Institutions are emergent: born from the bottom up, they suddenly catch fire, and then transform the fabric of economies. It’s through small changes massively distributed, like those above, that 21st century institutions are most likely to spark and ignite a great reboot. Call it a new American Dream. Its details aren’t visible yet, but it’s outline looms large. It’s about a more meaningful prosperity, that matters in human terms, and it is institutions to support and nurture meaningful work, play, and living, that the 21st century demands.

Eventually, all our great stuff will look like Hadrian’s wall. We need to make sure that between now and then, we’re coming up with creative ideas that make things better – that’s the way to win with innovation these days. And that’s the way to respond to the realisation that nothing lasts forever.

(photo of Birdoswald from flickr/The Amatura Press under a Creative Commons License)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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