The Martial Art of Transitioning From the Industrial Era

TwitterLinkedInGoogle+Facebook

Focusing on harmony will help your organization thrive in the digital economy.

How organizations engage with the world is one of the biggest differences in our transition from the industrial era to the digital economy.

In the industrial era, there was a confrontational mentality. Value was only transferred in the context of commercial deals. Customers were actors we did things to as opposed to with. Business was conducted in corporate offices, the store, or the factory. Not in the cafe, on the airplane or from a living room.

One might say that the transition into the digital economy is one from confrontation to harmony.

Harmony might be considered a form of spiritual enlightenment. Pragmatically speaking, in a hyper-stimulating, highly volatile and real-time environment, it makes little sense to be squandering our cognitive capacity (personally and corporately) on confrontational friction.

So harmony makes good economic sense. Taking an industrial approach in the digital era is akin to storming a coffee shop and hectoring people into buying your products while they are deep in conversation with friends and family.

I think that the martial art of aikido is a useful reference for how digital era organizations might conduct themselves. From an etymological perspective:

  • Ai = Harmony
  • Ki = Life force (aka chi, prana, or mojo)
  • Do = An approach

Aikido might be seen as an approach or philosophy for creating harmony through life force energy management. In short, don’t fight nature; work with it.

As a practitioner of aikido, I can see how it captures the spirit of the digital era. It is a defensive art, relying on the energy of the attacker for its effectiveness. Aikido practitioners are not prone to causing trouble.

Here are some aikido principles, which could help your organization thrive in the digital economy.

Extend your mind: An awareness of what is happening around you will increase the chances that you will identify “incoming disharmony” and so be in a better position to decide whether to avoid or harness the associated energy. In the digital world, this would be a competitor badmouthing your product or services on social media.

Redirect the attack: It would be tempting to launch a counter attack and badmouth the competitor. But perhaps it would be more effective to re-direct the attack by acknowledging that there may be some rationale underpinning the claims (in aikido this is called respecting your partner’s ki). Next step is to separate the hype from the facts. And then to use those facts as a basis to explain what is good and what needs to be improved in your organization. It is important that you do not give your attacker any energy or resistance in this process, as it will merely prolong the attack. By in effect ignoring the attacker, they will appear to onlookers as if they are attempting to pick a fight with an invisible opponent. Not a credible or sustainable posture.

Know your partner’s mind: Has this fast-approaching person got your best intentions at heart? Does their body language suggest the bottle on the counter is about to be used as a weapon? In business terms, what do your customers really think of your services? Analytics, coupled with social media tools, can provide the sentiment analysis needed to decide whether your offerings need to be re-tuned or retired. As in keeping with the lean start-up approach, this is not to be guessed, but to be based on reality. In the data.

Execute: As aikido film star Yoda points out, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.” Trying has a cognitive overhead. As you take the shot at goal, your focus should be on scoring, not on whether the shot will be successful and the possible recriminations of failure. Ideas are easy to come by. Whether they work will become apparent only through doing. Again, another lean start-up principle. Having an infrastructure that facilitates the transition of your services from development to the live environment is crucial. The concept of devops (Development / Operations) is a culture that has evolved from the agile software development world. Digital economy organizations must be continually shipping, rather than focusing on big bang launches.

Perform with confidence: This overlaps with the execute principle. Confidence can drain an attacker of energy. “Why are they smiling? Perhaps I have misjudged my target?” Arrogant people are convinced that they are always right. Confident people don’t expect to be always right, but they are confident that through learning from failure they will become successful in due course. Should the aikido practitioner’s response to an attack be ineffective, she will quickly establish where the attacker’s energy is now heading, and work with that. Organizationally, many people are afraid of failing, and even more afraid of revealing their failure. The culture of the organization, on the face of it, may seem to be disciplined and well oiled, but in reality the leadership (through its arrogance) is suppressing the organization’s ability to learn from its mistakes. Confident organizations embrace failure, learn from it, and move forward with this newfound wisdom.

Don’t create enemies:   Scenario one: You are attacked in the street. You use your martial arts skills to incapacitate the attacker. To ensure they do not get up, you break their arm. It turns out your attacker is a distant relative of Pablo Escobar, so you now have the Medellin cartel alumni to worry about on a daily basis. Scenario two: You apprehend the knife your attacker is using against you. You hand it back to her. She repeats the attack. You repeat the response. Eventually, somewhat perplexed the attacker walks off. No harm done; no vendettas necessary.

Scenario two is an aikido response. Enemies are a source of disharmony and thus a cognitive burden. Better to focus your organization’s energy on creating great customer experiences rather than on “tit-for-tat” activities involving your competitors.

We are seeing the emergence of a new form of leadership, which is less chest beating “it’s us versus the world,” and more open and conciliatory. This is smart and not weak. 

Aikido is akin to dancing. You do it with rather than to others. This applies equally to staff, customers, competitors, and suppliers. The aim is not to reshape the universe, or impose your will on the market, it is merely to capitalize on reality in such a manner that all parties benefit. Military leaders might take note.

Much of these ancient principles can be implemented using new technology. Perhaps digital is not just another name for IT, but the convergence of IT and an enlightened human nature. Could this be an opportunity for your CIO to become your C’Ai’O?


Ade McCormack is a near futurist, digital strategist, keynote speaker and author. He is a columnist focusing on digital leadership. He has written a number of books, including one on the future of work, (Beyond Nine to Five – Your Career Guide for the Digital Age). He has also lectured at MIT Sloan School of Management on digital leadership.

For more information on Ade, please visit www.ademccormack.com.


Dive deeper into the ways the Internet of Everything enables organizations to take on digital transformation.