The only thing constant. (hint: it’s not the kilo.)

Annie Hardy
Nov 15, 2018 · 6 min read

Have you by chance heard that the definition of the kilogram is about to change?

It’s a fascinating story; Le Grand K was crafted in 1879 as a cylinder of platinum and iridium that perfectly represented the weight of one metric kilogram, a little over 2 pounds. For generations, Le Grand K - or Big K to its close friends - has been the official measurement of a kilogram, carefully protected with VIK (Very Important Kilo) treatment, living locked-vault, glass-housed life in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) near Paris.

Replica of Le Grand K. (source: National Institute of Standards and Technology)

But as we all know, things change over time. In fact, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, “Modern measurement science has moved away from using physical objects or other substances as standards. The kilogram is the lone remaining unit defined in terms of an artifact.”

“Modern measurement science has moved away from using physical objects or other substances as standards. The kilogram is the lone remaining unit defined in terms of an artifact.”

This is in large part because stuff — physical things — are not constant. They are inherently unstable. Add a few airborne contaminations, a few atoms absorbed, and WHAM! You have thrown off the definition of a newton (the SI unit of force), thus the pascal (the unit of pressure), and the joule (the unit of energy or work), and eventually the true watts of your Philips smart bulb or the voltage of your Tesla Model 3 is put into question.

The Big K has a few friends globally — other cylinders created by the same exact specifications — but over time, the masses of the other prototypes have diverged. Either other prototypes are getting heavier…or Big K is getting lighter.

This graph shows the change in weights of other global prototypes relative to the Big K, whose weight is noted consistently on the “0” line. (image credit to NIST.gov)

This inconsistency is the catalyst for tomorrow’s vote — to establish an unchanging official method for defining a kilo.

The only thing constant is…change.

On Friday, November 15th, the international General Conference on Weights and Measures will meet in Versailles, France to decide on whether Le Grand K will indeed continue to exist as the official measurement of the kilogram…or if the definition of a kilo should instead be linked to the universe.

You know, science. Math. Physics. Rather than tying our entire definition of mass to a hunk of metal that exists in the physical plane and is prone to slow decay. NPR’s Nell GreenfeldBoyce well-explains the new system of measurement expected to be used.

“Going forward, the world’s system of mass measurement will not be based on some special hunk of metal, but rather on unalterable features of the universe — such as the speed of light, time and Planck’s constant, a number that helps scientists figure out the energy of a photon of light, given its wavelength. (The approximate numerical value of Planck’s constant is 6.626 x 10–34 joule-second.)”

Because the way we’ve always done things isn’t necessarily the way we should be doing them.

Forget the Alamo. Remember the kilo!

As soon as I heard about this, I thought about the application of this entire story to business. Audiences, markets, environments are evolving, and many companies are still relying on what they’ve always done and what they *believe* is true.

Ehm…that’s not working.

Fewer than 12% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still a Fortune 500 company in 2017. And half of today’s S&P 500’s firms will be replaced in 10 years.

I think we all understand intellectually that these companies aren’t keeping up with change, but the term that many have used to encapsulate it is Creative Destruction, also known as Schumpeter’s Gale. In a nutshell, in 1942, Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter introduced the concept of Creative Destruction, which is basically where markets and companies alike have to be broken to become fixed in a better way, to evolve into what the future needs, and to sustain the viability of a business in an ever-evolving capitalist society. For the economic fans, Schumpeter's words to define this phenomenon:

“The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation — if I may use that biological term — that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. (Schumpeter, Joseph, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy 1942, p. 83)”

Digital Transformation overall has been called “A modern form of creative destruction.” And Netflix has been given as an example of a company that disrupted an entire market with innovation.

But some companies are making changes to adapt and thrive…but doing it wrong. ING actually adopted Agile and DevOps years ago in light of evolving software development best practices. However…they discovered that a change in their tech HAD to be supported and mirrored by a change in other parts of their organization. And they found that out because their significant investment in Agile and DevOps just failed. It didn’t work. They didn’t close the loop on the rest of the infrastructure that was so crucial to the success of their organization.

They wanted to be leading change, but the change was coming too fast, and they were responding in too shallow a way.

They didn’t creatively destroy their process. They creatively reupholstered it.

That approach is insufficient. We could add atoms back to the kilo, take atoms off of the other kilos, slowly adjust our measurements to adhere. But it doesn’t address the root problem.

We have to totally, painfully change things sometimes to ensure the sustainability of our businesses. Because small, half-way actions won’t cut it.

Just ask the 250 companies that are going to drop off the S&P 500 in the next decade. They’re making changes, sure. But sometimes, an entire shift of thinking is what needs to happen. An operational structure needs to change. A redefinition of product, market, business, goals, needs to become pervasive within a corporation to sustain and grow in today’s markets.

But sometimes, an entire shift of thinking is what needs to happen. An operational structure needs to change. A redefinition of product, market, business, goals, needs to become pervasive within a corporation to sustain and grow in today’s markets.

Even the definition of “Digital Transformation” has changed.

Amidst this conversation about our current expectations and assumptions about business compared to the fast-paced evolution of the market, it’s important to note that even the definition of “Digital Transformation” has changed. That’s a term I remember from about a decade ago, where companies were *just starting* to adopt more sophisticated, integrated tech solutions to business problems.

HBR wrote it out nicely in 2017:

“A decade ago, for example, companies were mainly focused on data mining, search technology, and virtual collaboration. Today, executives are directing their energy toward artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the Internet of Things.”

The only thing constant is change. But due to creative destruction in a fast-paced market, responding in an uninformed way to today’s market changes can kill either your potential or your business entirely.

Be the change you want to see.

A bunch of physicists, astronomers, researchers, and mathematicians walk into a bar…of platinum and iridium before they toss it out.

A bunch of company executives and technologists walk into a bar…graph showing historic success and assume that it represents future success. They change nothing.

Will you be the scientist that evolves, or will you be the executive who fails to thrive?

Annie Hardy

Written by

Founder of zeet insights, an Austin-based market & design research firm; design thinker, diversity advocate, tech geek, proud mom.

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