Part 2—The Toffler Curve

In Part 1 of this 7-part series we looked at VUCA, its origins, it’s meaning, and how it relates to Agile leadership.  The speed and interdependence of events in today’s world are overwhelming the time-honored processes and culture we’ve built so far.  Once comforting constants are transforming into variables that defy predictability and challenge traditional models of leadership and management.

In this part, we’re going to examine the “Toffler Curve”, which will help you understand the rise and context of VUCA, and why it not only won’t be going away, but will only intensify.

Meet Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler

Alvin Toffler was born in 1928 and died in 2016.  An English major from NYU, he took his lead from Jack London and John Steinbeck and spent 5-years working on an assembly line.  Later in life he was: a White House correspondent for a Philadelphia newspaper; a columnist for Fortune; a freelance researcher hired by IBM to study the social and organizational impact of computers, by Xerox to write about PARC, and by AT&T as a strategist.  He is the author of 12-books including: Future Shock, and The Third Wave, (each still worth reading as they remain as applicable now as they did when they were first published).  Among other things, he predicted narrow casting, media fragmentation, the internet, working from a wired home, and more.  Most importantly for our purposes, he created what has become known as “The Toffler Curve.”

The Toffler Curve

Toffler observed that not only was change occurring more rapidly, but the rate of change was actually accelerating.  He also went on to observe that because change causes commensurate disruption to humans and society, the rate of that disruption is also accelerating.

Toffler Curve

Three Waves

In the context of his curve, Toffler went on to identify three waves of change.

The First Wave, the Agricultural Wave, began with Adam, and ran until ~1800.  During this wave, the rate of change was essentially flat.  The time lapse from the invention of fire to the invention of the wheel is measured in tens of thousands of years.  The time from the wheel to the printing press is measured in thousands of years.  And the time from the printing press to the telescope is measured in hundreds of years.

The Second Wave, the Industrial Age, ran from ~1800 to the 1940’s (i.e., WWII), and the rate of change began accelerating.

Since the 1940’s, we have been in the Third Wave, the Information Age, and the rate of change has started up a hockey stick curve.

Toffler Curve 2

Voilà, VUCA

We now find ourselves on that part of the curve where the rate of change has gone vertical—the rate of change, and the disruption that it brings to humans and society, has become environmental.

Toffler Curve 3Let me give you some perspective:

  • Prior to the 18th century enlightenment, when people wanted to study their “predecessor society” (i.e., society prior to the existence of the tools and technology of their current day), they had to look back thousands of years, or more.
  • After the enlightenment, when people wanted to study their predecessor society, they had to look back hundreds of years.
  • Today, when we want to study our society prior to the existence of the tools and technologies of the current day, looking back less than 1-generation gets you there.

Agile Leadership & The Toffler Curve

The rate of change, and the disruption it creates for humans and society, is no longer climbing a line of ever-increasing slope.  It has gone vertical.  Change and disruption are now environmental—voilà, VUCA.

Operating successfully in an environment where change, along with its attendant disruption for humans and society (i.e., VUCA) screams for Agile leadership.

Coming Next

Part 3: Bits & Atoms.