SNAFU: The New Normal

First published September 2, 2010 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week I heard this in a meeting:”We’re in the middle of tremendous change. The organization is going through the biggest transition in its history.”

The line is usually delivered with a mix of desperation, a touch of helplessness and an apologetic tone. The admission comes, with the predictability of a carefully timed script, as I’m trying to assess where companies are in terms of their digital marketing maturity.

Just a few years ago there was a lot of brash boasting about how cutting-edge companies were, but it’s been a long time since I’ve heard that confidence. Even former dot-com rock stars are realizing that they have a lot to learn. They know things are messed up and they think it’s their fault. Somehow things have gotten fouled up in the execution machinery of their company. They’re not smart enough, nimble enough or gutsy enough.

Hello, My Name is Gord, and My Company is Struggling to Keep Up…

Here’s the secret that most of these companies don’t know. As gut-wrenching the changes they’re going through — as messed-up as everything seems to be — they’re not alone. I hear that same apologetic admission from almost every company I meet with. I say it myself with a regularity in our internal company meetings that has lead to the formation of a betting pool with our more cynical team members. The next line that follows in the script is a desperate question: “Can you give us an example of a company that’s doing this right?”

The answer, though disappointing, is at least succinct:”No.”

We’re all learning — and we’re all screwing up. Get used to it, because it’s the new normal. This is the environment in which we have to learn to exist. There are no blueprints or case studies of perfect execution, because we’re heading into virgin territory.

If You Don’t Laugh, You Cry

World War II gave birth to my favorite acronym: SNAFU. It stands for “Situation Normal: All F*&%ed Up.” As a born cynic, I love the tang of acrid yet amused resignation in the face of an impossible situation that the term carries. It sums up the one attitude that ensures that we will eventually triumph: Look, we all know the world is a big ball of crap. Suck it up and get the job done. And while you’re at it, stop your whining.

There are two things that have shoved the world into massive disruption. First, we have the tidal wave of change unleashed by digital technology. It was like strapping a rocket pack on the back of our society and lighting it up. The only problem was that we didn’t know where we were going. At first, it didn’t matter, as long as we were moving fast. We were just exhilarated by the speed at which we were moving.

That led to the second factor, the crumbling of the economy. Suddenly, fast wasn’t good enough anymore. We had to be fast and focused. The stuff we did had to make sense. We — and by we I mean everybody — were being held accountable.

There’s Actually a Name for This…

These twin factors are ushering us through a period economists call a Long Wave Transition. Venezuelan economist Carlota Perez, in particular, has spent a lot of time thinking about this.

Here’s a quote from one of her papers:

“The problem is that, in such periods, institutions face a chaotic and unaccustomed situation, which requires much deeper changes than the great majority of their leaders and members had ever experienced. The difficulty is increased by the fact that there are no proven recipes and change has to take place by trial and error experimentation under the pressure of the very high social costs of the techno-economic transformation.”

Or, in other words: SNAFU. Get used to it, because you’re not alone.

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