Mandala: Nothing is permanent, and neither is the seat at the top

Monks working on Mandala at Google in Mountain View

Well except for the “Bay Lights”. The lights went up on the Bay Bridge around the time I moved to San Francisco and has become one of my favorite things in the city. Illuminate the Arts and San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener just struck a deal to secure the funding needed to make the Bay Lights — originally planned as a 2-year installation — permanent.

But back to business talk: nothing is permanent. The phrase comes from Tibetan monks who build Madalas — geometric forms with spiritual and religious significance in Hinduism and Buddhism — out of sand, over a week or more. It takes a tremendous amount of time, focus, precision, and practice to create one. The monks work together as a group, starting from the center of the mandala and working their way outwards in unison. When the mandala is finally finished, they pray over it, and then — however long it took for them to deal in this divine geometry of the heavens — they destroy it. They sweep it up, every last grain of sand. And that’s it. It’s gone. In an instant, after all that artistry, all that work, it’s over. Most recently I saw them do this at Google in Mountain View.


Impermanence Is Everywhere

The message from their actions is the universe and everything around us is continually in a state of change. The speed of change can vary dramatically, but everything is transforming. The world is in a constant state of change. Growth and rebirth are outcomes of this impermanence.

What lessons should companies learn here?

Companies need to think like monks and not expect their old strategy will last them for years to come without complete re-write of strategy. Organizations are built with meticulous care and vision. They grow from startups to large organizations over years. Some of them get a seat at the top at some point but to stay at the top they have to innovate — think IBM, Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, etc. Some of these companies stay up there longer while others come down fast — think, Blockbuster, Palm, Kodak, etc. This happens for a lot of reason but the ones I’ve seen most consistently and is the most preventable is that they get complacent and unable to adapt to change.

These companies have certainly created new markets for their time but what they failed to do was evolve with the newer markets their successors created over time. Companies need to learn from the concept of growth and rebirth from the Tibetan monks. They become too large to make rapid changes. Or they are too stuck in their old ways. They are unable to adapt to the needs of their newer clients and instead push their old products with new branding and spin without actually innovating their products or culture from within. What these companies need to learn from the monks is to not think of their success as permanent but rather be ready to device a new story when the markets demand. Amazon is a good example of a company that went from being an online bookstore to now a general content provider, cloud platform, device maker, and even experimenting with different types of delivery service models and methods.

The New Workforce

When the Internet started getting global adoption around 30 years ago new enterprises were born (Cisco is celebrating their 30 years today!). Today we are in the glory days of the Internet and have seen several iterations of the change it has brought to business: from internet 1.0, web 2.0, mobile, virtual reality, and now the Internet of Things. The new generation of workers are “digital natives” — they grew up with the Internet. They saw the evolution of graphics from Atari, Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros, Half-Life, League of Legends, Destiny, Farmville, Mafia Wars, to Candy Crush. No wait, check that — a 22 year-old graduate today was born the same year Mario Kart came out on the SNES. If you can remember when that game seemed revolutionary, remember that your customer today might think of it as retro. In a mobile world, they grew up with Nokia, Motorola, Blackberry, Palm, Apple, and Samsung. They have seen analytics take share from business intelligence, big data, and personalization, to machine learning. You get my point — they’ve seen a lot. Let’s do one more — for communication technology this workforce grew up with AIM, tired of ICQ, MSN Messenger, then moved to iChat, WhatsApp, FB messenger, Twitter, and Instagram.

But what happens next when they enter the workforce? They have to use old systems, old processes, and old communication tools. The thought of using outlook for email without the ability to use plugins or shortcuts scares me. This agile, fast-paced, transparent, decentralized, mobile workforce is very frustrated with what they experience. They are demanding tools such as Box, Github, Yammer, Slack, and Hipchat. They want engaging technology that is mobile-friendly, with better UI, and personalized, data-driven solutions. Current enterprise companies are unable to keep up while their new customers and employees are demanding change. This revolution will create billions in terms of market opportunity.

M&A is not the answer to Innovation

Some companies like Cisco, GE, Salesforce, etc. are trying to solve this by M&A. In fact, M&A activity will tremendously pick for this and various other reasons (large cash reserves here and overseas). But is that enough? Many companies haven’t demonstrated being able to stay innovative by just throwing cash at the problem. Over 70%-90% ( of the acquisitions fail — Palm + HP, Sprint + Nextel, AOL + TimeWarner.

This sector’s growth will take off when the companies are willing to start fresh with a new mandala: with new vision and a futuristic perspective. Once the companies open up to erasing their legacy, they will be able to develop new ways to collaborate, hire, manage data and devices, and generally work on making their workforce productive. These companies have to think about driving forces behind this disruption and think about steps they should take in this new market to continue to stay at the top. Here are the two driving forces in today’s enterprise I think they need to consider.

  1. Behavior changes in the workforce
  2. New business models enabled by a cloud stack

I will try to cover these driving forces in detail in the near future but for now I am glad the Illuminate the Arts and San Francisco Supervisor, Scott Wiener, listened to their customers (citizens) and found innovative ways to fundraise and making the “Bay Lights” a permanent exhibit.

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