Robert Safian on the Age of Flux

The Age of Flux


by Robert Safian

When I sat down earlier this year with Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, at the company’s new spaceship-like headquarters in Cupertino, California, he stressed the importance of thinking long-term about the business.  Despite “the 90-day clock” of the investment community, he explained, Apple’s products are based on silicone, on chips, and so the company has to plan “three, four-plus years in advance”.  I’ve thought about that conversation a lot, in part because of what it implies: that even for the most valuable company in the world, with the strongest brand in history, long-term today can mean just three years. Wow!

If you sometimes feel uneasy about the future of your business or your career, you’re not alone. Opportunities may abound in our modern tech-fueled economy, but so do uncertainties.  With the pace of change continuing to accelerate—data science, artificial intelligence, augmented reality and so much more—the old rules of business no longer apply.  And if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that no clear new rules have emerged. We’re on our own.

But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless.  Because embracing a new approach can help position any of us to thrive in this environment. The question to ask yourself is:  Are you a member of Generation Flux?

Robert Safina Speaking on Changing MindsetsGeneration Flux is the term I use to describe forward-thinking and forward-acting businesses and business people who deploy the essential skill in today’s economy: adaptability.  As Cook told me, “You want to have flexibility until the last-minute, to explore.” GenFlux is not defined by chronological age; you can be young or old and belong to this group. What’s required is a mindset of openness, a comfort with being uncomfortable.

Over the past few years, I’ve worked with leaders at organisations big and small, from innovation icons like Apple and Nike and Spotify, to budding startups.  Here are four key lessons that have emerged:

  1. Speed matters. The word ‘innovation’ is often used, but true innovation is not a single product or achievement.  It’s the ongoing output of a culture of agility, what one CEO I spoke with calls “building a cadence of change inside the organization”.  Few of us are prepared for constant change, but those who are determined to be the initiators of that change—to force others to react to them, as opposed to responding to the moves of others—put themselves in a stronger position to be successful.
  2. Youth will be served.  The obsession with millennials—and the rise of 30-something billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg—is enough to make anyone exasperated. But make no mistake:  We ignore the proclivities and practices of youth at our own peril. Whatever controversies may surround Facebook, it’s the quintessential example of how new, youthful, unexpected perspectives can transform our world.  Flux leaders recognize this; they remain focused on their next customer, their next employee, their next partner. They’re always looking ahead.
  3. We need each other.  Even as technology remakes expectations and industries, the human factor remains more important than ever.  The judgment about how resources should be allocated, strategies chosen, talent recruited and retained… this is not the realm of the algorithm.  While the job market will surely shift, human skills will remain paramount.  Computers are excellent at sifting and managing certain complex tasks, and as one colleague remarked to me, “Anything that can be done by computer, should be done by computer.”  At the same time, there are central needs like collaboration, creativity and ethics that remain firmly and solely human.  Or as that same colleague noted, “Whatever should be done by people MUST be done by people.”
  4. Mission beats marketing.  What does your company stand for? What is your professional purpose? Clear answers to these questions provide the ultimate competitive advantage in the Age of Flux.  When you’re being barraged by new stimuli, and change threatens to overwhelm you, how do you (or your business) determine which things to react to in a committed way and which can be safely allowed to pass?  Because we can’t react to everything—that brings only panic.  And if we react to nothing, that’s called paralysis. What a clear mission provides is a filter on this wave of change, a way to sort, prioritize and focus. It’s the only way to have impact.

To be a member of Generation Flux is to be a lifelong learner, willing to look at each day as “day one”, as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos puts.  Nostalgia for the past may be reassuring, but it’s not helpful. Fearlessly jumping into the fray is the only way to build the resilience we all need.


Robert Safian is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Flux Group, a strategic advisory and media firm dedicated to preparing business for a future that’s approaching faster than ever. Formerly the chief editor of Fast Company and executive editor at Time and Fortune, Safian has interviewed dozens of top business and political leaders, appeared on multiple TV outlets, and delivered keynote speeches on stages around the globe.