When old school is new school

by Dr. Anthony Paustian, the author of A Quarter Million Steps: Creativity, Imagination, & Leading Transformative Change

I once had the opportunity to observe professional drag racing firsthand at the NHRA Nationals in Brainerd, Minn. As part of the experience, I got to walk the U.S. Army Top Fuel car to the starting line and stand behind it as it launched down the track. What I didn’t expect was to be physically knocked backwards by the shock wave created by the 8Gs of force generated when the car took off. I couldn’t see the shock wave, but I definitely felt its power.

Change, too, can be difficult to see, but its effects can have a profound impact. The ability to see either something that doesn’t yet exist or the oncoming effects of change requires imagination, or the ability to mentally visualize and elaborate on abstractions.

Someone once imagined a future where food is prepared in Star Trek-like replicators, humanoid robots walk and interact with people, and 13-year-old gamers work to cure cancer. As a result, 3D printers are now able to print edible food,1 and the Robotic Challenge through DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has created androids that walk and move like humans.2 Speaking of DARPA, they run a public computer game through social media called Foldit where young gamers try to fold proteins, one of the most difficult biochemistry barriers to curing disease.3

Imagination is a fundamental trait of an effective leader. While history is loaded with people who lacked this invaluable trait, successful organizations are most often led by those who have vivid imaginations. These people are able to see where the world is heading and to develop products and services that anticipate the transformative change (think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Elon Musk).

While it’s often tempting to react to change and make rash moves to adapt to it, newer doesn’t always mean better. Change doesn’t always have to be transformative. For example, following the release of Windows 2000, it quickly became apparent the upgrade wasn’t an improvement and most people reverted back to Windows 98. As a child, I never had to wait for Gilligan’s Island to buffer; and the battery in my HP-12C calculator purchased in 1988 lasted for 25 years before it had to be changed. Today, I’m lucky to get a few hours of battery life out of my iPhone.

When new, “game-changing” ideas are introduced, companies are frequently quick to jump on the proverbial bandwagon, often with what seems like an adapt-or-die mentality. They incorporate the ideas into their own products with the hope of remaining competitive – easy to see when looking at the rapidly changing landscape of smartphones, tablets, app development, and content distribution over the last decade.

However, when the world does embrace change, it can leave opportunities behind.

Despite trying to fully utilize a Palm PDA in the early 2000s and then a smartphone, I’m still more efficient and successful using an old-fashioned paper planner – and new, stylish paper planners continue to line the shelves of most retailers. Speaking of paper, the tablet computer and eInk readers were supposed to mark the end of the traditional book, yet paper book sales are as high as ever. Despite desktop publishing and an array of high-quality, low-price color printers, print shops using archaic letterpress machines – those that use wood and steel type – are popping up all over. After years of improving food production through genetic engineering, food trends are giving way to organic and old-fashioned, farm-to-table production.

While I continue to be a huge advocate for the creation of new ideas and awareness of the possibilities those ideas bring, I believe it’s more important to stay true to your own values, core competencies, and the passion that ultimately fuels them. New and different isn’t always better. Sometimes, as those new ideas shape the world around you, it requires imagination to see how your old school ideas can become new school thinking.

Practice Challenge: Occasionally when the world around you shifts, it creates an opportunity. Can you reapply some “old school” ideas or practices that made your company or organization great in a new school way? Perhaps it was people-centered, very personal customer service as compared to using overseas or automated service, or perhaps it was the laborious, handcrafted approach to production used to make your products as compared to new state-of-the-art production techniques. Whatever it was that differentiated you and formed the basis of who you are today could become the new school idea that launches you into the future.

©2015  Anthony D. Paustian

1Doering, Christopher. (2015, June 24). “The New Dimension of Food.” Des Moines Register.
2McMahon, Bucky. (2015, November). “These are the Droids We’re Looking for.” GQ Magazine.
3Easton, Nina. (2012, January 16). “Fortune’s Guide to the Future.” Fortune.

PaustianLargeHeadDr. Anthony Paustian is the author of four books including his most recent, A Quarter Million Steps. For more information, please visit his website at www.adpaustian.com

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