Monday, May 7, 2012


By only pursuing “sustaining innovations” that perpetuate what has historically helped them succeed, companies unwittingly open the door to “disruptive innovations”. -- Clayton Christensen

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. -- William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I Scene V

Often, two randomly juxtaposed thoughts will join together in my mind and hatch a hybrid concept that teaches me something that either I didn't see before, or I did see and didn't pay enough attention to. Earlier today, I was scanning my Facebook page to see what my friends were up to. I skimmed through the usual smattering of jokes about getting older and "remember when...". Then, I went out and took a short walk, using my need to mail off a couple of bill payments as my excuse. (Yes, sometimes I still need to gin up an errand of some sort to get me off my duff and out of the house.) Just the fact that I still mail paper checks to pay some of my bills brands me as a Baby Boomer, but I don't care.

It's a bit more than half a mile from my front door to the nearest post office, a decent-sized building with a mail sorting room in the back and room to park a dozen or so mail trucks in the back parking lot. Not one of those vest-pocket things tucked away in an office building. For the better part of a year, we have known that this post office was going to close -- an upsetting notion, given the size of the post office and the many thousands of people in this zip code. Today, I saw a sign on the front door: a week from today, the post office will be opening in its new location just a block from where I live. (Good for convenience, bad for nudging me into a one-mile walk.) The new location is a smaller space that used to house a dollar store, at the very end of a long strip-mall shopping center. The thought that "post office" might be the next step on a downward spiral from "full-priced retail" to "discount" to "dollar store" to, well, who knows what, made me a little melancholy. The post office is going the way of dial telephones and vinyl records (both of which I own, but haven't used in ages).

What we are seeing with the post office is just another example of what Clayton Christensen calls "disruptive innovation". I can still remember when the post office was never open on Saturdays. Air Mail was really expensive, so you only used that for emergencies or overseas correspondence. If you wanted to mail a package, you took a used cardboard box, padded your item with wadded-up newspaper (and prayed that would be enough, given the post office's track record for smashing fragile items), sealed up your package with brown paper tape, wrapped the whole thing in heavy brown paper (usually a cut-up grocery bag), and tied it all up with twine. It was a lot of work, but the post office was the only game in town.

When FedEx and UPS appeared on the scene, they shook things up just a little. They were very expensive, and people thought of them as something you used in an emergency, when you had to rush your delivery. The post office had a legal monopoly on letter delivery, and they would deliver your letters to the most remote locations or between two major cities for the same price -- although the remote location took a bit longer. Gradually, overnight delivery (or a couple of days if you were frugal) turned into the norm. Slick, made-to-order shipping boxes with machine-readable labels replaced brown paper, twine, and hand-scrawled addresses. Flat cardboard envelopes for documents skirted the post office's monopoly on letter delivery. The post office stepped up its game, staying open longer hours, offering self-service package mailing kiosks and online stamp sales. But really, it was just more of the same thing. And now, a whole new thing, once used only by the geeks and nerds in the government labs, is pushing the post office into obsolescence.

I have been an email user since the Arpanet days of the 1980s. At first, it was just a convenient way to communicate with the staff scientist who funded my postdoc while he was off on his frequent trips to the particle-smashing labs in Europe. The only people you could email in those days were other scientists and engineers, and you had to use dial-up modems where you put a telephone receiver on a cradle-shaped holder to transmit data more slowly than I could type it in by hand. Once, an undergraduate student tried to flirt with me via green-lettered text chat in a large room full of big chunky dumb-terminals, but that's as colorful as it got back then. If you had told me that one day I could go shoe-shopping, pay my bills, chat in real time with my sister almost 3000 miles away, and look at funny pictures of kitty-cats using a book-sized computer that sits on top of my desk and a fiber optic cable that sends data fast enough to stream full-length movies, I would have thought you were high on something.

Now, even that laptop computer of mine is becoming passe, big clunky thing that it is. Dick Tracy himself would have been amazed that ordinary civilians could buy things, run a business, pay bills, video chat, and share photos and video clips using tiny telephones that fit into the palms of our hands. Poor old post office never saw that coming. While they were busy trying to compete with the package delivery services, the digital age crept its way out of the laboratory and exploded full-on into the cultural mainstream.

What does that have to do with me taking a year to find my wings? I suspect that the current economic and societal upheaval is part of something bigger about to take shape. Big companies with multi-tiered organizational charts and a focus on conformity, command, and control, took a big hit in 2008. The Occupy Movement and its supporters underscored just how deep the discontent is within the long-suffering middle class. Digital file sharing has undermined the music-business behemoths, YouTube is challenging broadcast television, Amazon supports self-published e-books that the big publishers won't touch as well as keeping several musty little used book stores in business. Grassroots advocacy campaigns go viral, disrupting the rubber-stamp committees of the powers that be. Priuses outnumber Hummers on the streets (at least around here). It's getting very hard to sell McMansions in the outer suburbs, and "inner city" is no longer exclusively a derogatory term. I have been both fortunate and unfortunate during previous times of upheaval. This time, I'm going to see if I can be mindful and resourceful as well.

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