Linear People. Exponential Change.

I had great fun last week keynoting the Additive Manufacturing Conference at the Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), partly because engineering is a bit of an alien profession to me. Engineers pursue detail with a passion, while I’m more of a big-picture guy. It was an honor to be invited into one of their havens and deliver a message that melded their specific expertise with a broader market view. We had a terrific day exploring many aspects of Additive Manufacturing and how it’s affecting operations around the world.

Much of the conversation surrounded how exponential change transforms our businesses and lives. No one can keep up with everything. Humans were not engineered to handle change at that speed.

We are linear creatures in a world of exponential change. Exponential change is exhilarating in small doses, but frightening when it becomes ubiquitous. For example, going from zero to seventy in a sports car is great fun…for a few seconds. Now imagine that same acceleration going from Madison to Milwaukee. You’ll probably make tip-off at the Bucks’ game, but even the boldest among us would be scared beyond belief.

Yet exponential change happens all around us…every day! Technology, manufacturing, and society in general change faster than any of us can handle on our own. The breadth and depth of this change is unprecedented, making it difficult to keep up with progress…and its implications.

Exponential change requires new approaches to make sense of accelerated developments. This new world requires a different skill set for our organizations and for each of us as individuals. This is scary, but if you’re willing to commit to lifelong learning, participating in this change can be a terrific adventure.

The speed of change requires different approaches that balance expertise and synthesis. Expertise becomes more critical in this environment – especially as broad experts lose traction. Traditional experts are being replaced by a synthesis process where specific expertise fits into a larger picture of how organizations operate and how they compete in internationally-linked markets. This marks a significant shift from our hero culture where we tend to passively line up behind the experts who take leadership roles and then rely on their view of the future to guide our own actions.

Success in this new world depends on all of us playing active roles and doing our part. One Additive Manufacturing Guru, Todd Grimm, laid out a terrific framework at the MSOE event which describes three significant roles in every changing operation: Champions, Gurus, and Sherpas. Champions bring great energy and passion around specific new technologies and applications. They find the hottest new ways to get things done and promote them far and wide. Gurus are the people with a larger world view. That larger view enables them to link specific technologies with situations where they can be applied most effectively. Finally, Sherpas supply energy and enthusiasm about change and engage with other team members to make effective actions happen. Every organization needs all three skills to take advantage of exponential change. No one can play all three roles by themselves, so it takes an effective and integrated team to build an ongoing process that creates a sustainable virtuous change circle.

Lifelong learning forms the cornerstone to all these efforts. Change will never be this slow again as we head up the steep side of the exponential curve. Speed requires all of us to adjust and sharpen our own skills. Relevant skills – strengthened by current knowledge – are needed to drive all three roles – Champions, Gurus, and Sherpas – within effective teams.

Embracing lifelong learning and harnessing exponential change can be a blast; however, it does require stepping confidently into uncertainty. To make this easier, commit to learning what you can and give yourself permission not to know everything. It’s a wonderful time to learn because information has never been so widely available. We’re starting a great adventure – discovering new technologies and techniques that will transform the world.

As usual, Wisconsin’s strong manufacturing base plays a critical role in this ongoing transformation.  More than two-thirds of R&D spending comes from manufacturing companies. Manufacturing also provides unique platforms and situations to bring technology out of the lab and into the real world. This opportunity to drive transformation makes it a great time to be in Wisconsin manufacturing.

And it’s a great time for you! Jump in! Become a lifelong learner, fill a role, and make a difference!

It will be a terrific adventure!

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