This is the text from a presentation I gave on 13th September 2018 at Zukunft Personal Europe in Köln.
Whatever your industry, whatever role within it, or whether you’re in the private sector or public sector, you’ll have come to value success. Now I am going to try to blow your mind. I’m going to make you value failure.
But why? That sounds counter-intuitive. Failure is the exact opposite of what we generally look for in people. Well strap yourselves in ladies and gentlemen, we’re going on a journey, and you might find a few of our destinations quite surprising.
We are all by now very familiar with the rapid pace of technological change. We’re living in a world which at one time would have come straight out of a science fiction novel. The only thing we’re missing are flying cars, though even they exist and are an option if you have a runway in your backyard. More and more jobs are threatened by automation and technology. This isn’t actually anything new. Once upon a time humans would carry stone or food around or put them onto horses. Then someone had the bright idea of the wheel, and attaching it to a container that the horse could pull. After that fewer people were needed to mine a quarry or transport food. Squeezing more productivity out of fewer people via technology is also the basic thought behind an ancient human invention that most of us are familiar with – windmills – which once used wind energy to grind wheat into flour and now use that same energy to generate electricity.
The machinery in our factories, which have been operating for just over 300 years, is there because it’s better at performing its task than a human. The advantages of automation over human labour are clear. Machines manufacture goods quickly and process material reliably, with incredibly consistent workmanship. My husband, an engineer who worked as an auto mechanic in his younger days, spoke to me about old mechanic lore of a “Friday afternoon car” or “Monday morning car”. Cars built built by human hands during a Friday afternoon when people were eager to start the weekend early, or on Monday morning when people were still hung over from their weekend revelry, were notorious for having an above-average number of defects and faults. Thankfully, due mostly to the robots, such vehicles no longer exist.
There is also the safety aspect to consider. Robots break, and can be easily repaired. Humans can also break, but the damage takes longer to fix and involves a lot of waiting. Sometimes the damage is irreparable, costly to the company financially and possibly debilitating to the human for the rest of their life. Handling molten metal, using heavy items, dangerous chemicals, or other hazardous substances is a task much better handled by robots than humans wherever possible.
So machines are faster, more reliable, consistent, and safer than humans. That’s some tough competition already, but it’s getting even worse, as the machines are becoming smarter with advances in AI happening at a rate that is astonishing even futurists. AI has actually been with us longer than people realise. An obvious example is aircraft autopilots. Some techy types might say that’s not true AI, but from a HR standpoint it definitely is. An automated system which responds to unforeseen events and reduces the workload of humans is enough, in HR terms, to be considered AI, and autopilots have been doing this for some time, improving the reliability and safety of air travel. There has always been human there though, and for a very good reason. AI is more reliable and processes information faster than a human, but it can only deal with situations it has been pre-programmed to recognize and understand. It completely lacks the ability to respond to unexpected situations creatively. Until now.
This is a piece of classical music which was composed by an AI. What you’re watching in that video is something quite remarkable and should send chills down the spine of everyone who thinks their job is safe from automation – a piece of creative media, designed by a machine, is now being given form by humans. It would appear we’ve come full circle. The machine has instructed the human how to build.
So human labour is already facing very stiff competition from technology in every single area, and the pace of technological advancement is accelerating year on year. The versatility and ability of our machines will only become greater as time rumbles forward. So how can humans stay relevant? What is it that humans can do, and probably will always do, that the machines can not?
AI, by design, can’t make mistakes. It can be bugged or fail, but that isn’t the same thing as a mistake. A mistake is an unintentional act which creates unforeseen consequences. An AI operates through design. And to unintentionally design something, whether it’s an object or an action, is obviously a paradox.
Humans create and build things through the conscious act of searching for something, but humans also often create and discover things through pure accident and mishap. Usually it is a blend of the two. Our erratic and illogical behaviour can be a downside, but it also has benefits.
Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was discovered because Alexander Flemming failed to keep his laboratory clean and found certain mould destroyed bacteria. The microwave oven came about because engineer Percy Spencer was fiddling with radar equipment and discovered that, somehow, it had melted the chocolate bar in his pocket. My husband, through neglectful and shoddy shopping habits, ran out of jam to put on his toast one day so grabbed the nearest thing to hand, and the toast with barbeque sauce and banana was born. All accidents which have changed the world. Unlike machines, we humans can actually be at our best when we’re behaving erratically and straying outside our boundaries. Yet we rarely seem to value this way of doing things, particularly in a work environment. In fact, we seem to frown on or disparage accidental achievement. Far from punishing or sidelining those who experiment or try something new, we should find ways to support and encourage them, even if their departure from conformity doesn’t yield a positive result.
But what does this have to do with HR?
Firstly we need to understand that the problem, which educator Ken Robinson called a “crisis of creativity”, is deep and entrenched. It’s not just in our workplaces, but in every part of our lives and has become a core part of how we see our place in the world. Cultures and societies all over the world value conformity and normality above individuality or eccentricity, and how we manage the individual and enforce conformity starts very early in life. In schools we stigmatise failure. As kids grow up we continually test them against standards set and define their success according to these tests. When reward them when they do well and warn them about the consequences for their future if they don’t.
Kids who think out of the box, who think inventively and don’t conform, are at best “corrected” and at worst punished. In essence, they become frightened of being wrong, and in turn this makes them risk averse. This is destructive to one of the key strengths of being human, as making people risk averse saps confidence, diversity of thought and, more importantly, creativity, for if one isn’t prepared to risk being wrong one can’t really try anything new or creative.
So that’s what happens to us when we’re kids. What happens to us when we get into work?
In most modern work environments we also stigmatise failure and mistakes, as well as constantly monitor our employees and look over their shoulder to ensure compliance with accepted practice. While this does make failure less likely, it also stifles the ability of many people in the workforce to behave autonomously or to creatively respond to unforeseen events. The more a company applies pressure to employees who might fail, the less likely it is that those employees will try to solve problems on their own, as opposed to calling for someone senior to step in and take responsibility. The less an organisation trusts its employees to handle jobs in their own way, the more training and managerial hand-holding will be required. In essence, we create robots out of people.
Let’s kick this up a level higher. When this culture becomes endemic across an entire organisation it becomes very much a part of the organisation’s operating ethos. Our businesses and public sector services are all affected. They are afraid of potential failure, so lack the desire or motivation to try something new. Status quo bias is apparent everywhere. Products are new, services are new, the whole world is being recreated in front of us. But bizarrely our workplace practices are still very old. People show up and work an average of eight hours per day, for an average of five days per week. We use disciplinary measures coupled with simple monetary rewards to ensure compliance, despite numerous studies showing us that this is not how to get the best out of people. Given how much of our lives are devoted to work we need to do better. We need to do this not just to make work engaging fulfilling and rewarding for people, but also so we can continue to compete with our own technological creations in the workplace.
A good brainstorming session can reveal much about how much fear of making mistakes or looking foolish impacts our work environment. When you get a room full of people and give them a safe space where nobody need worry about ideas being silly or unworkable, you see people becoming enthusiastic and interested. Talking openly, testing ideas to destruction, picking through each imagined scenario and creatively coming up with ways to pull the ideas apart, is where we see people at their best. It’s also an environment which is pretty safe from automation.
So how do we turn the tide? There are three things I spoke about recently at Zukunft Personal Europe that can have a huge impact.
Firstly, we need to learn how to value self reflection. I know self reflection isn’t something that comes easily, especially when one is asked to reflect on things that have gone awry, but doing so is the only way we can learn, recover, and move forward. This is not a new concept – Johari’s Window, a model which helps us to to look at our relationship with ourselves as others, was created in 1955 and has been referenced in almost every HR and Learning & Development course ever delivered, at least in Western Europe, yet it’s something that we continue to struggle with. This struggle is due to the our fear of mistakes and willingness to give in to “imposter syndrome”. Rather than face our mistakes head on and learn from them, we frequently tell ourselves we are not good enough and that we should never have tried in the first place. The inability to see mistakes for what they are – a consequence of a chaotic universe, inexperience, and an opportunity to learn – stifles not only creativity but also our confidence and willingness to take a chance and try something new.
Otto Scharmer from the Prensencing Institute takes the idea of reflection one step further with his Theory U model. Scharmer shows us that to be more creative and impactful we need to have a mix of discussion, feedback and self reflection. By finding one’s blind spot and then taking on the viewpoints of others it allows us to think more clearly about the future and turn our ideas into reality.
Secondly, we need to foster an environment of creativity, encourage diversity of thought and, where appropriate, of process. We can make steps towards this by just being aware of when people are more creative. Dan Pink has done some work recently looking at how we can get the best out of our day by understanding our chronotype. The study looked at our physiological symptoms throughout the day and found that we go through three stages during the day; peak, trough and recovery and that we are at our most creative when in recovery mode. About 80% of people are what Dan Pink has termed larks and follow the standard peak, trough and recovery as the day progresses. What was interesting from the study was the other 20% who are either night owl or other birds who often reverse cycle. With more and more agile working people are going to be able to work more to their chronotype and preferred cycle which will lead to greater creativity. I appreciate agile working and the freedom to choose your hours is not a luxury everyone has, but it can still be a useful insight to plan one’s day more purposefully as well as providing a simple awareness that others may not be at their best at 7am.
We also need to make serious adjustments to how we deal with mistakes in the workplace, as well as how we measure the value of an employee’s output. Cultivating an atmosphere of collaborative cooperation as opposed to an atmosphere of cut-throat competition is the key to doing this. We’re ultimately trying to encourage people to bring their passion and ability to work with them, warts and all, but to do it in a way that enhances the organisation as a whole (including the contributions of their co-workers) rather than doing it in order to advance further up the career ladder. Unfortunately this leaves us impaled on the horns of a dilemma – how do we reward those who do this, but reward them in a manner which does not once again foster the competitive aspect?
Traditionally in HR we have rewarded based on other the carrot or stick – in today’s world, especially where creativity is required, both of these approaches are wrong. We need to move away from these methods and remember that’s not what keeps people coming to work. Yes, extrinsic motivators and basic needs must be met, but we now expect so much more out of our work than just a paycheck. So what does keep people happy, engaged and fulfilled? Research has shown that our intrinsic motivators are often what keep us turning up every day. Dan Pink summarised it nicely in his work on motivation; he showed that people are motivated most by having autonomy, mastery and purpose. We want to be able to fulfil our role free from micromanagement and have control over our own time. It’s important that we feel like masters of our craft and have the right support to help us grow and develop. And we want our role to mean something, this can be for the self, the customer, the team, the wider organisation or the greater good, what is key is that our contributions need to have value to us to keep us motivated.
Lastly, we need to embrace diversity and reject conformity. By this I don’t just mean in terms of the people within our organisations. From a HR perspective, we need to be more diverse in our organisational design – changing times have forced organisations to adapt in order to stay competitive, and so the landscape of work must do the same. We are seeing some organisations break with the archaic 9-to-5 model and welcome more agile ways of working, but for the few that are modernising, there are still hundreds refusing flexible working requests purely as as it requires the business to do something different. This needs to be on the HR agenda.
The workplace of today is unrecognisable from what it was just 30 years ago. The people starting work today have no idea what their job will be, or the environment they’ll be working in by the time they retire. So a good worker of the future will be defined by how well they manage, learn, and adapt. A major part of being able to do that is to accept and embrace failure as a positive experience. Inventiveness, spontaneity, confidence and creativity in the face of the unforeseen are going to be the key skills we will need in order to stay relevant in an increasingly technological world.