The Tragedy of the Uncommons

If you believed the litany of TED Talks, industry insights, or commercials featuring Common, it would be easy to believe that the business world was on the precipice of a giant evolutionary leap. It’s an inspiring idea; one that will be realized by a handful of companies that make it through the bottleneck event. But most businesses — despite their lofty ambitions and rhetoric — are simply incapable of anything other than incremental changes. They’ve operated without significant selection pressures, choosing the known over the uncommon.

Persisting in stasis has thus far been profitable, and it will likely be most businesses’ undoing.

It is justifiable to call this a failure of leadership — because it definitely is — but the story is more complex: by definition, most of us prefer the status quo. Our evolution has made us risk averse, particularly when decision outcomes are unknown. So, while CEOs may talk a big game, they’re not looking that far ahead. Or they may not be around long enough to reap the benefits. A dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, which makes investing resources into an unknown payoff at an unknown time simply a bad financial decision.

But these uncommon people and ideas might be the only thing that matters.

The ingrained risk aversion that served us well on the savanna is now stifling creativity and innovation: perhaps two of the most important — and certainly most talked about — resources in a knowledge economy. Unfortunately, many of the companies and individuals that possess those traits are left to languish. Or they’re conspired against. And in some cases they’re hunted.

The inability of leadership to perceive value does not negate its existence, but the refusal to perceive it certainly will. It is this disparity in perceived value that motivates the uncommons’ entrepreneurialism and spawns the next generation of competitors. There’s a tectonic shift underway — a punctuated equilibrium forced by changing environments and a flipping of the established order.

And yet, the business world blissfully lumbers along, willfully ignorant that half of what they do is worthless, and the other half is being threatened by automation. That’s right: somewhere between half and all legacy jobs will cease to exist.

This isn’t digital disruption; it’s a digital extinction event.

It’s hard to put a dollar value to innovative companies, individuals, and concepts — they might be hard to measure, they might be hard to understand, they might be hard to monetize (but we know them when we see them). And like other extinction events, those that will dominate in the next age are not the ones that are readily apparent. They’re overshadowed by the behemoths of the past: the known quantities, the best practices, and conventional wisdom. And so, the uncommons toil underground, waiting for the rapid explosion of novelty that will follow the bottleneck event.

Unfortunately, an unlucky few of the uncommons will fall victim to the bean counters and the naysayers. Some will go out and fail spectacularly. And a handful will wistfully look back at the exclamations of “What? You can’t do that!” as they recount the story of how they survived to the next age when so many others went the way of the dodo.

If you consider yourself an “uncommon”, look beyond the corporate PR and rhetoric and embrace, with your dollars and talents, the companies and brands that are taking risks and bucking the status quo.

Let’s create the future we deserve, not the one we’re sold.

In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.
 — Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe