How to harness the human factor in the age of machines

In a world of machines we need to be more, not less, human

I was once at a fancy dinner sitting next to the CEO of a major global automotive business. To get the conversation going, I asked a question I was exploring in my own mind: “What skills do you think people need to survive in our age of technological disruption?” The CEO put down his napkin and replied: “Understanding History and Philosophy.”

He was an engineer by training, so it’s fair to say this was not what I was expecting. He continued. “You need to study industrial history to truly understand the changes our world is undergoing. And philosophy, to make the decisions on how AI should be ethically deployed in our businesses and products.”

That dinner was four years ago. Since then the interrelated forces of digitisation, datafication and AI-automation have become even more disruptive. I didn’t realise it, but I was at the beginning of a journey which would result in my latest book, The Human Edge, in which I explore the skills humans need to survive and thrive in a world of artificial intelligence.

In the book, I advise anyone to develop what I call the ‘4Cs’: curiosity, creativity, consciousness and collaboration. In this article, I discuss five important steps for leaders to unleash these human superpowers in their employees.

Step 1: Don’t compete, do differentiate

For the first time in history white collar jobs are fair game for AI-automation. The First Industrial Revolution replaced our arms and legs at work. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is replacing our brains (a phrase coined by Andrew Ng, formerly of Google and Baidu).

If it’s possible to write an algorithm which describes 100 per cent of the judgment calls within a role, it will be automated by AI. Predictable and repetitive human ‘grunt work’ will be consigned to history fairly soon. If you’re a telemarketer, data entry worker, librarian, account clerk, tax submission preparer or freight agent, watch your back.

But along with low level jobs, AI is now encroaching on even the most highly-respected and complex roles. For example, AI is now better at diagnosing breast cancer than any doctor on the planet. Basic sports reports are routinely written by AI. Some global law firms now rely on algorithms, instead of junior associates, to read thousands of documents for pre-trial due diligence.

There is good news. Paradoxically, where AI is strong humans are weak, and vice versa. Our natural human gifts are beyond even the most powerful machine: deriving meaning, common sense, critical thinking, humour and empathy, to name a few. So, this isn’t the AI apocalypse just yet. While the current generation of narrow AI is perfectly adapted for specific challenges, humans are far better at the big picture. Think ‘smart kitchen appliances’ rather than ‘The Terminator’.

In the coming age of automation, most people will not be made redundant. Instead narrow, repetitious, routine and data-rich tasks within their jobs will be ‘cheese-sliced’ away by AI. This is a chance to step up into the more ‘human’ part of any occupation – and do it better. Not surprisingly, top CEOs have identified creativity as rapidly rising up the hierarchy of valuable human skills.

To check if your job is safe ask the following question: “How complex, unpredictable, emotion-driven and potentially creative can this role be?” Most careers, if we have time in the day, have a human aspect to them. This is why I advise anyone seeking to make a bigger impact to stop competing with machines. Instead focus on doing things machines can’t. Differentiation is a better strategy than competition. The smart move is to focus on honing capabilities fit for our modern context. Shrewd leaders will support their people in doing this.

Step 2: Don’t tell people to develop the 4Cs, show them how they work for you

Ironically, a world of machines is creating a greater demand for human curiosity, creativity and collaboration than ever before. This requires a sea change in the relationship between management and staff.

Global organisations have spent decades curating cultures in which career success is unlocked by obediently following the rules. Now we need the opposite: employees who are prepared to question the status quo. This means leadership itself is being transformed. Psychological research clearly demonstrates you can’t order people to be creative. It just doesn’t work. You have to craft an environment in which people feel sufficiently safe, inspired and engaged to give you their passion, commitment and ideas for free.

When it comes to creativity, the employee-employer relationship is a gift economy. I’m often asked by mystified managers: ‘How do you do that?!’ The most crucial first step is for them to look in the mirror. True leaders don’t mandate the 4Cs. They model them.

Step 3: Ask more – and better – questions

We all need to un-learn and re-learn as swiftly as the world is changing. There’s a good reason why curiosity is in such demand from HR directors. It’s proven to help you learn more rapidly and effectively. Research shows it’s like a cognitive ‘muscle’. Neglect it, it gets flabby. Exercise makes it bigger and stronger. Of course, curiosity also provides the vital fuel for creative thinking.

It’s crucial to realise, we humans are inspired to be curious by the people we spend time with. To unleash curiosity the most powerful day-to-day leadership behaviour is for leaders to ask more, and better, questions. In theory, this should be easy. In practice, especially in a culture where it isn’t normal practice – it’s difficult.

A boss who asks questions reveals he or she doesn’t have all the answers. You have to overcome a fear of looking stupid or ill-informed. This is why it’s so crucial that leaders ‘go first’. Their display of audacious humility invites those without power to also probe the status quo. Great questions feel dangerous because you genuinely don’t know the answer. However, when leaders ask questions like: ‘How might we?’ ‘Why do we do it this way?’ What if…?’ and ‘Why Not?’ it opens a world of possibilities in the minds of their team.

Just think, what would have happened to infamous corporate failures such as Kodak, Nokia, Xerox, Blockbuster, Yahoo, Myspace, Polaroid and Borders if they had developed a culture of persistent questions? Chances are they would have evolved instead of living on as cautionary tales in business school case studies.

Step 4: Place learning at the centre of your leadership approach

Leaders can kickstart a culture of curiosity by talking publicly about their own self-motivated, personalised learning agenda. Back when Bill Gates was the Chairman of Microsoft, he devised a way to prioritise learning in his busy life. Each year, he’d take two separate “Think Weeks” out of the office just to read and reflect in a secluded cottage.

In these seven-day stretches of solitude he contemplated the future of technology. He banned all outside visitors including his own family and Microsoft staff. The only person who had direct access to him was a caretaker, who brought him two simple meals each day. These weren’t holidays – but stretches of time devoted to pure curiosity.

There are many ways to follow Gates’ lead and send a powerful signal about the value of learning. Appoint volunteer ‘learning mavens’ who are recognised for their skill in personal development. Promote people who encourage curious learning. Create ‘curiosity badges’ to be displayed on internal digital platforms and LinkedIn profiles.

In The Human Edge, I unpack a powerful personal development technique called the ‘Five-Hour Rule’. This is a way to re-design your working week to liberate an hour each day that’s ringfenced for reflection and learning. This is a transformational mindset shift, especially for time-poor, harassed executives.

Step 5: The best teams will be Humans + Machines

AI offers humans the precious gift of time by automating the ‘stupid stuff’ we currently have to do, and thereby reducing our day-to-day cognitive burden. Sales reps, for example, spend up to 80 per cent of their time qualifying leads and only 20 per cent closing deals. AI can automatically sift potential opportunities, leaving human salespeople to divert their focus to non-routine, highly-value activity.

We all know AI chatbots already deal with frequently-asked questions and routine outbound calls. Recent surveys show, ironically, for routine queries, people actually prefer a ‘known’ chatbot over a human who may be robotically reading from a prepared script!

Most of us will increasingly work alongside smarter machines. AI should liberate employees to help frustrated customers and colleagues by using lateral thinking, empathy and humour. For example, bearing in mind the studies to show AI superiority, I definitely want a machine to help diagnose my medical test results. But I want to be cared for by a real person.

As my CEO dinner companion was indicating, our curious creativity is becoming increasingly valuable. Leaders need to harness this. They have to start with a clear message: to make an impact in a world of machines you need to more, not less, human.