The challenges of 21st-century work—rapid innovation, unrelenting change and unprecedented uncertainty—have created a stress pandemic.
Depending on your disposition, you may view the future as ripe for a spectacular explosion of creativity or poised on the brink of self-destruction. Either way, there’s no going back.
The tools and skills we’ve developed over the last century inadequately address imminent challenges. We’re caught between two paradigms: a collapsing industrial platform and an uncertain new one.
“Information Age” insufficiently captures the spirit of where we’re headed. We will be forced to interpret unprecedented information streams and navigate vast knowledge networks to solve new problems.
Too Much Information
The world’s ability to store, communicate and compute information has grown at least 23% annually since 1986. Digital information increases tenfold every 5 years.
Amazon seeks to make every book ever printed available in any language in less than 60 seconds. Google’s mission is to organize all of the world’s information and make it universally accessible.
But we’re not yet ready to deal with these interconnected, nonlinear and amorphous challenges. Our skills remain too basic. We must break free of static, linear thinking and move toward dynamic, holistic information processing.
Man vs. Machine
Our educational system has taught us to copy, memorize, obey and keep score—skills we now ask machines to handle. Computers have taken over many of our jobs.
In February 2011, the IBM computer “Watson“ trounced two Jeopardy! champions over a 3-day competition. Watson’s cognitive-reasoning skills were far superior, with access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content (4 terabytes of disk storage, including the full text of Wikipedia).
Even before Alex Trebek finished reading a clue, Watson’s 2,880 parallel processor cores began to divvy up the workload. At 33 billion operations per second, they could search 500 gigabytes of data (roughly 1 million books) in the blink of an eye. Watson could also hit the buzzer in less than 8 milliseconds.
During the 3 seconds Watson took to deliver a correct response, various algorithms worked across multiple processors to return hundreds of hypothetical answers. Watson was programmed to hit the buzzer only after reaching a 50% confidence level. By the end of the game, Watson had surpassed previous champions’ winnings by almost 200%, easily becoming the first nonhuman Jeopardy! champion.
In February 2013, IBM announced that Watson’s first commercial software application would be used for utilization management decisions at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Ninety percent of nurses who use Watson now follow its guidance.
This is an example of how robots, machines and computers will ultimately take our jobs. We must harness our creative energy in new ways to stay ahead of the “robot curve.”
In 1942, economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term creative destruction to describe the continual process of economic and technological innovation. Modern-day examples include:
• Telephone replaces telegraph
• Automobile replaces horse-drawn carriage
• Digital camera replaces film
• Smartphone replaces cell phone
The need for efficient transportation and communication will persist while their delivery systems will always change.
“Help! A Robot Ate My Job!”
If you haven’t yet heard this complaint, you will. Today’s widespread unemployment is not a jobs crisis; it’s a talent crisis. Technology is taking every job that doesn’t require a high degree of creativity, humanity or leadership.
In times of rapid change, success favors those who can make big leaps of imagination, courage and effort. Innovation and creative destruction are rampant in the first two decades of the 21st century. The call for new ways to work will become even more pressing.
10 Areas Ripe for Innovation
We tend to think of new technology as the space where game-changing innovations occur, but fertile new ideas may reside elsewhere. The Doblin Group, a Chicago think tank, has identified 10 areas where innovation can deliver competitive advantages:
1. The business model: how a company makes money
2. Networking:including organizational structure, value chain, partnerships
3. Enabling processes: the capabilities a company buys from others
4. Core processes: proprietary methods that add value
5. Product performance: including features and functionality
6. Product systems: extended systems that support the product
7. Service: how a company treats customers
8. Channels: how companies connect offerings to customers
9. Branding: how a company builds its reputation
10. Customer experience: including the touchpoints where customers encounter the brand
Think of problems as opportunities to find worthy and inspiring solutions. In Metaskills: 5 Talents for the Robotic Age, business adviser Marty Neumeier encourages leaders to use the following questions as inspiration points:
• What’s the “either/or” that’s obscuring innovation opportunities?
• In which areas do the usual methods no longer achieve predicted results?
• What’s the “can’t-do” that you can turn into a “can-do”?
• Which problems are so big that they can no longer be seen?
• Which categories or sectors exhibit the most uneven rates of change?
• In which area is there a great deal of interest, but very few solutions?
• Where can you find too little or too much order?
• Which of your talents can be upscaled in some surprising way?
• Where can your passion take you?
5 Skills for the Robotic Age
We need to stay on top of the robot curve—the constant waterfall of obsolescence and opportunity fed by competition and innovation.
Neumeier presents five metaskills that—so far—robots cannot handle:
1. Feeling encompasses intuition, empathy and social intelligence. Humans draw on emotion for intuition, aesthetics and empathy—skills that are becoming more vital as we enter the robotic age.
2. Seeing is the ability to think whole thoughts (also known as “system thinking”). We understand parts of a system when we appreciate their relationship to each other, rather than in isolation. Before tinkering with a system, we need to ask:
a. What will happen if I do nothing?
b. What may be improved?
c. What may be diminished?
d. What will be replaced?
e. Will it expand future options?
f. What are the ethical considerations?
g. Will it simplify or complicate the system?
h. Are my basic assumptions correct?
i. What has to be true to make this possible?
j. Are events likely to unfold this way?
k. If so, will the system really react this way?
l. What are the factors behind the events?
m. What are the long-term costs and benefits?
3. Dreaming requires you to apply your imagination—one of the brain’s more mysterious capabilities. Innovators transform their dreams into practical solutions. You dream by disassociating your thoughts from all that is linear and the logical. Like most things, dreaming improves with practice. Unfortunately, it’s never taught in business schools—a gross omission that discourages innovation.
4. Making involves mastering the design process, including skills for devising prototypes. Creativity is nothing without craft. The act of making something turns imagination into brilliant products, services and successful businesses. Think of it this way:
a. In design, sketching is the mother of invention.
b. In science, it’s the experiment.
c. In business, it’s the whiteboard diagram.
d. In writing, it’s the rough draft.
e. In acting, it’s the run-through.
f. In inventing, it’s the prototype.
g. In jazz, it’s jamming.
You must constantly push yourself beyond your limits and pay attention to the tasks that trip you up. In design circles, this is known as fast failing. Successive drawings and models are designed to illuminate the problem and, in the process, spark intuition among collaborators. It will be interesting to see how 3D printing will be used to enhance the design process. Unfortunately, too many organizations value process and standardization at the risk of suppressing surprising results.
5. Learning is an ongoing process. We must continually master skills to adapt. We then apply our newfound knowledge in innovative ways. Learning is enhanced through good moods, action and emotional experiences. We become masterful through deliberate practice.
These five metaskills can keep you two or three steps ahead of the machines, algorithms and outsourcing forces of the robot curve. They’ll also bring you greater creativity, a higher purpose and a deeper sense of fulfillment.
So far, the human brain has many advantages over machines, but the gap is closing. You’ll need to routinely upgrade your skills to remain essential.
Will You Be “Future Smart”?
Game-changing trends will continue to affect business, technology, the workforce, the economy, security and the environment. We’re well aware of many of them: climate change, energy demand and population growth. We can only guess at others.
Thriving in this future requires you to become predictive, adaptive and agile—what global futurist James Canton, PhD, calls Future Smart. Exponential new technologies will emerge in digital money, mobile commerce and big data. An explosive new middle class of more than 1 billion consumers will enter the marketplace. We can look forward to:
• Regenerative medicine that extends our life span and rebuilds our bodies
• Robots and drones that drive our cars, teach our kids and fight our wars
• Smart machines that design, manage and service 40% of all global businesses—energy, commerce, finance and manufacturing—without humans
• Always-connected digital consumers who challenge every business to change its strategy
• Climate-change wars that redefine security and resources
Most of us are ill prepared to meet these challenges, which are coming faster than we think. Armed with knowledge, those who are future smart can take action to reinvent themselves, their businesses and their world.
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Working Resources is a San Francisco Bay Area Executive Coaching Firm Helping Innovative Companies and Law Firms Assess, Select, Coach, Engage and Retain Emotionally Intelligent Leaders; Executive Coaching; Leadership Development; Performance-Based Interviewing; Competency Modeling; Succession Management; Culture Change; Career Coaching and Leadership Retreats.