Once Dr. Albert Bartlett made a profound statement, “The greatest shortcoming of humanity is our inability to understand the exponential function.” The logic is simple and irrefutable. Exponential growth cannot proceed indefinitely within a finite system, whether on earth or in an economy.
To explain, Bartlett gives an interesting example. Suppose we put one hypothetical strain of bacteria in an empty bottle at 1100 hrs. Bacteria grow by dividing themselves, thus doubling at a finite rate. Let’s assume every minute they double. Then we observe that the bottle is full at 1200 hrs. With this information, he asks two questions.
The first question here is: what time the bottle was half full? If you think carefully, the answer is, 1159 hrs, just a minute before 1200 hrs. And, that is because they double every minute. The second question is: if you were one of the bacteria in that bottle, when would you realize that you are running out of space?
Let’s first see how the bacteria population was for the last few minutes in that bottle. At 1159 hrs, the bottle would be 50% full, at 1158 hrs it would be at 25%, and thus, it would be only 3% full at 1155 hrs. For most people, this may not be a cause for alarm. If that is the case, how many of you would realize there is a problem, just five minutes before it’s full? When is the best time to take some action?
There is no correct answer to it. To the question, “When should you take action?” The only appropriate response is – today and now! This example explains how exponential growth works and the gravity of the situation concerning disruptive innovation, which often results in exponential growth in the market.
The metaphor illustrates that although people might think they are very good at adapting to the changing circumstances, they don’t necessarily recognize the need to jump out of them to survive for the long term.
Being adaptive to the changes is a good strategy in the short-term.
However, many of us miss the point: when the changes are dramatic or exponential, we cannot overrun them. For the long-term, learn how to piece things together from different domains and broadly decide your strategy.
Instead of trying to overrun and practicing tactical adaption – think long term and build on unique human qualities.
The power to create – to innovate – to choose!