Skipping the chasm: How a crisis accelerates progress
Full credit to Geoffrey Moore, whose seminal Crossing the Chasm keeps proving to be a useful book thirty years after it was written. Credit also to Hans Baumhardt who introduced me to the book and who critically shaped my thinking about work and life. What I hope do, now that the credits are over, is explain how we are all currently being affected by a crisis in a positive way. By no means do I intend to side-line the terrible impact of the pandemic, which has sadly affected hundreds of thousands of people. However, in this piece I’m going to talk exclusively about the upside, where some advantages are to be found by those who can see the opportunity, and how all of that relates to Moore’s Crossing the Chasm.
Crossing the Chasm
In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore describes a process (aptly shown on the cover of the third edition) by which technology is adopted. Like all great ideas, it is more broadly applicable than you may realise. Anyway, the stages of the technology adoption lifecycle are…
- Early Adopters
- The Early Majority
- The Late Majority
But, importantly, there is a big gap between Early Adopters and The Early Majority called The Chasm. This is the leap your product or idea needs to cross in order to make it into the mainstream.
The normal route used to cross the chasm is the spark ignited by the Innovators and the momentum and promotion of the Early Adopters.
Skipping the chasm
When there is a crisis, that gap between Early Adopters and The Early Majority narrows. That means that adverse conditions can create an environment within which progress is accelerated. Potentially by years.
Prior to the current pandemic, you really needed to be working for one of the well-known tech innovators, such as Octopus Deploy, Basecamp, or GitHub or at one of The Early Adopters of remote teams (probably inspired by companies such as these innovators) to find situations where distributed teams were normal. Fully remote teams and hybrid distributed teams were the dream, but the reality for the mainstream was probably five years out. Large companies had invested so much in the offices, the equipment, and the way of working that it was hard to see past the sunk cost. It was inevitable that remote would become the default, but it seemed a way off.
Then the crisis hit, and there was no alternative for companies but to acquire the laptops that they probably should have been investing in some years earlier. They had to make it possible to access systems from outside the concrete walls. They had to adopt video conferencing and other communication technologies. All of the investment of time and money into solving the problems was accelerated from years into weeks.
A crisis narrows the chasm, or even closes it.
What does this mean for business
The subject of remote working is one that has come up in most companies I have worked at over the past ten years. Over this time, I have built and refined a model that predicts there are certain phases to remote work. There are important implications for organisations that have not yet moved to remote or hybrid teams. I have adjusted the model based on events this year.
The waves, or phases, are:
- Redundancy and Furlough Movers
- Remote Preferred – Local Salary
- Remote Preferred – National Salary
- Remote Required
That is to say, we have already had a wave of tech talent being displaced by disruption to their previous employment. They will have moved to a role that was necessarily remote due to lockdown restrictions. They may have been willing to drop some salary to secure an income during the crisis. They will look to recover this later, potentially with another move. There is certainly no surplus of available talent, as smart organisations made roles available to snatch from this temporary pool.
We are now moving into the next phase, which is that people will be looking out for fully remote work. At this stage, they will consider roles at local rates. For example, a developer in Lymington may be happy to work for a company in London on a “Lymington wage”. The local competition for talent in Lymington means that salaries are lower than London rates. Companies willing to be in The Early Majority may secure talent in this phase that will not be available later.
The next phase will be disruptive to The Late Majority and devastating to Laggards. The early advantage will be lost and local salaries will no longer be viable. Latecomers will need to compete with companies in London for the candidate in Lymington, which means you’ll need to offer London benefits packages. Over time, salaries get more expensive for previously lower-paid areas.
Finally, we reach the phase where the best tech talent is only available remotely. If you haven’t adopted by this stage, you’ll be working out the details while others are flying. Any competitive advantage will have been lost and you’ll be spending even more money that The Early Adopters just trying to catch up to them.
The writing is on the wall. Microsoft have invested a ton of effort into Microsoft Teams, researching remote work fatigue and introducing features that reduce it. They’ve quickly made Teams the most compelling tool for remote workforces. On top of this Microsoft has announced its own move to a hybrid workforce. Those who opt to work remotely for more than half their time lose a permadesk at the office, but can use a pool of office space when they need to visit HQ.
The old script of working hard to fund a retirement has been torn up. Not many people hold out much hope of having a dream lifestyle when they step back from the workforce at the ever increasing retirement age. People are realising that if you want to live a life, you need to do that while you are working. Once again, the Innovators and The Early Adopters are selling this as part of the package. Basecamp work four-day weeks for the whole summer, offer generous holiday (including a 30-day paid sabbatical every three years), and strive to promote a healthy balance of work and life. Many other companies are moving in a similar direction.
To put it simply, these changes are all coming. Your organisation will be changing, willingly or by market forces. All of the advantages will fall to those who move right now. If the work being done in your organisation doesn’t require people to be on prem, and if you aren’t remote or hybrid when 2021 lands, the potential benefits will be eroding very quickly.