This is an amazingly accelerated time to be alive. During my nearly 50 years on the planet, we have increased by many orders of magnitude the knowledge that we have about our own existence. Research into the ultimate origins and functions of things, ranging from life itself to skills and traits like language or culture, has flourished. Read even casually through the popular summaries of this research from the masters of it, such as Daniel Dennett, Daniel Kahneman, Steven Pinker, and Lisa Feldman Barrett, and you’ll recognize that we know more about who we fundamentally are, what makes us uniquely human, than prior generations could even imagine it was possible to know.
In all this knowledge, however, one thing I haven’t seen anyone do is step back from the research and combine it into a single model of what we know about how humans think and act and how that shapes our world each day. From years of incorporating theories from many disciplines in my own work, I have gradually built up just such a synthesis in order to avoid making predictions that might be supported by one body of work only to be undermined by another.
My requirements for composing such a model were simple: a) find a way to incorporate the entire corpus of theory about the specific skills of H. sapiens into a single model; b) make the model easy to grasp and verify empirically; and c) make sure that it is useful in that it can explain today and predict tomorrow. I believe I have accomplished that in a model that we introduced earlier this year called the four forces of consumer (human) behavior.
This is post No. 3 in a four-part series in which I describe the four basic forces of consumer behavior and how they shape our today and our tomorrow. In the initial post, I described the report that first introduced the model and touched on one of the four forces, namely emotion, a master force that motivates how we approach all the others. In the second post, I described how tool use is not just a fact of human experience but a driver of it, accelerated by the consumer technology revolution we are currently in. Today I write about task coordination while also expanding on the theory development behind the model itself, something we don’t generally include in our business-focused, client-only reports.
First, I am completely serious when I suggest that asking probing questions about human experience — why do we experience free will, how do we perceive the relationship between our bodies and minds, how do we construct a model of the mental machinery of the people around us? — is similar in nature to asking questions about why we embrace some technologies quickly, why we prefer some brands over others, and why we engage in specific social media behaviors. In fact, a model that can only address fundamental questions but is useless in telling you how consumers will respond to Facebook’s recent scandal is not a model worth writing about. Both things — fundamental human thoughts as well as daily consumer behaviors — have to be the result of the same processes because the same brain generates them. Studying one should help in the study of the other.
One thing we know from a century of study of fundamental questions is that the most reliable approach to them is via an evolutionary perspective. We don’t use tools merely because tools are a great way to get things done. We use tools because our ancestors who used tools survived at a higher rate than those who did not. This optional adaptation then soon became obligate as predators or adverse environmental conditions winnowed out the less effective tool users, leaving in our brains a tendency to be tool seekers and maximizers, not just users. Thus, today we are not only capable of using tools, but we must use tools even as we gradually become discontented by them and begin searching for even better ones. Now think forward, but replace the word “tools” with the term Facebook, or voice assistants, or mobile banking, and you understand why an evolutionary perspective is so useful in analyzing the way we engage, evaluate, and even discard our modern tools.
The same logic about tools holds for today’s topic: task coordination. We coordinate with other human beings to get things done — find food, negotiate the distribution of resources, cooperate to protect or expand our boundaries — not because it makes conscious sense to do so but because our brains have to. We feel compelled to do it and have accumulated thousands of years of biological and cultural predispositions that help us do it ever more efficiently than in prior generations. Under the influence of this urge, we signal task intentions, we indicate proposed task solutions, and we confirm cooperation with each other from beginning to end of the coordination of any task.
While it sounds like I’m describing a hunter-gatherer tribe’s activities, I’m also describing what you did last time you shopped online. You went on Target.com and you searched for a YETI cooler. That’s how you signaled your coordination intent. Target indicated its proposed solution for your search via search results, price signaling, and whatever relevant product metadata was available. You confirmed your intention by putting a digital representation of the cooler in your shopping cart (also a digital representation). And then you arranged to pay for it by inviting a third coordinating party into the task, namely a financial services provider. Target confirmed your transaction and sent you a follow-up email; maybe you looked at the tracking data to make sure it was coming at the right time or to the right place. What you did was very human, uniquely human. (Even though you were the only actual human involved in the moment, and even that will change soon as your bots do your shopping for you, machine to machine.)
All of that is task coordination, and though we use amazing digital tools to get it done today, the basics of what you’re doing are no different from what a berry gatherer did to signal intent to trade for a rabbit hide with a hunter. The specific tasks that matter to you are a function of your particular upbringing, culture, and environment, but stripped to its core, it’s all task coordination.
Thanks to digital tools, we can coordinate many more things, more efficiently, and across greater distances, overcoming previously insuperable obstacles. Yet I recall vividly how just 20 years ago, most people rejected the idea that there were massive improvements waiting right over the horizon. In fact, sometimes they got it exactly backward, assuming that the new things around the corner were worse than the status quo. When Forrester first opened shop on our Online Retail Strategies team in 1998, we continually had to listen to people in the industry explain to us why online retail wouldn’t work because the coordination burden was too high, too costly. “You have to solve the pick, pack, and ship problem,” was a phrase I grew tired of hearing. Nobody says that now. Instead, they cower each time Amazon announces one-hour delivery in another town. Or “People won’t trust products they can’t see or feel.” Okay, fine. Today, relying on digital efficiencies, people can see and feel products and ship them back if they don’t like them. It’s all task coordination, and by now, it’s awesome.
Those companies that can’t help consumers coordinate tasks many orders of magnitude more effectively than before will die. Bye-bye, Toys R Us.
The point is that by combining our advancing tools in new ways, we have become not just incrementally better at coordinating tasks, but we have become, and will yet become, many orders of magnitude better at it. Those companies that can’t help consumers coordinate tasks many orders of magnitude more effectively than before will die. Bye-bye, Toys R Us. As a founding member of the Online Retail Strategies team 20 years ago, it was exciting to see this unfold before my very eyes. As we wrote in our recent report summarizing the four forces, just 10% of US homes shopped online back then. And a tiny 4% of homes banked online. Today, we are living in the world our research two decades ago predicted: Three-fourths of online adults shop online in a typical month, spending nearly $800 in a three-month period. Mobile shopping is rising, on its way to becoming a dominant task platform, as well — 28% of US online adults buy on a mobile phone each month. Financial services — an industry of toolmakers that craft transaction-enabling tools — has also shifted to digital efficiency, with 50% of US online adults paying bills online in a typical month, as just one example.
Though we refer to this as going digital or being digitally disrupted, all it really is is our normal, evolved urge to coordinate tasks, enabled by our growing consumer tech stack. We evolved to do this, and as with all tendencies that we’ve evolved, we did so in such a way that we feel compelled to do more of it: in this case, to increase our task-coordinating effectiveness. That urge is limitless because evolution’s influence on our brains is limitless. There is no mechanism for satiating that urge, just as there is no mechanism for satiating our desire to learn more about our evolved selves.
Now extend that limitless thinking to all four of our forces, and you begin to understand that by integrating the four different forces, we can get even more tasks accomplished, more efficiently than before. Our improving tools help us coordinate more, and our emotions take note and direct us to care even more about the source of that improved coordination, which causes a toolmaker to notice and decide to improve the tool even more, which we are drawn toward by our emotions, which we then use to coordinate even more tasks more efficiently than before, and so on. That should resemble the last 20 years of your life, because we have the data to prove that that has been the last 20 years of all of our lives. One mega-important piece missing in my recap: the power of conversation to connect and accelerate all of these forces even more dramatically, within a person and across people. That will be my fourth entry in this series. Stay tuned.
James McQuivey, Ph.D. is VP and principal analyst at Forrester and incidentally believes that freewill exists, despite the neurological evidence. He first started at Forrester 20 years ago last month, swearing that he would someday return to academia to stay. Someday has yet to come. In the meantime, his book Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation helps you understand how companies use digital tools to build closer relationships with their customers, usually more quickly and cheaply than ever before.