The Blessed Typo

I had occasion this week to query an order from Amazon. I was sent a notice of dispatch for something I had not ordered. I did the usual checks to make sure the account had not been compromised, and set about querying the order and organising a return.

And so it began.

A few years ago, there was some interesting research into the notion of the uncanny valley. The dissonance that occurs as you become unsure whether you’re conversing with an algorithm, or a person.

The system is efficient – you know the routine. Then you get to the part where you have a non standard problem, and a chat box opens. The responses were efficient, but mechanical and I found myself wondering what I was conversing with. It’s a strange feeling, wanting the reassurance of being paid attention to rather than being efficiently processed.

And then – A TYPO!! – and a quick correction.

Algorithms don’t do typos. Algorithms don’t do vulnerable.

The whole tenor of the exchange altered. I was dealing with a human somewhere. It changed the nature of my questions (have you noticed how we fall into “machine speak” in chat situations?) which in turn changed my host responses. I got a satisfactory result to my issue, and felt acknowledged.

There is a space – a liminal space – between things – notes of music, responses in a conversation, gaps between thoughts. They are hugely powerful – they contain the all the emotions from fear to joy that will determine what happens next.

As yet, algorithms don’t do liminal space. They respond, but don’t leave space for empathy.

AI will have a huge impact, but we need to recognise context.

When I have a non standard problem, I don’t want a more senior algorithm, I want a human. And I want to know I’m conversing with one.

The Fire Carrier

Every business is started for a reason, and whilst making a profit is a key factor, it is rarely the causal factor. Most of us who have started businesses have done so as a result of an inspiration, an idea, a cause, or perhaps because we want to make a mark. Whatever the reason, it’s at the heart of the business. It’s the spark.

As the business grows, it changes. We recruit people who weren’t in at the beginning. We adopt processes to make life more efficient, but maybe a little less personal. We end up with important customers, suppliers and investors and shape our business to their needs. The business becomes professionalised.

The spark remains, but the business develops more and more layers that bury it deeper.

Before long, the balance changes. The business becomes distant from the spark that generated it and it becomes an end in itself, rather than means to an end. The business can become the master, rather than the servant.

The spark remains for a while, and can always be brought back to life if attention is paid to it.

Attention is a distictly human attribute – it suggests engagement and curiosity. A sense of being seen and acknowledged. It fans the spark.

The North American Indian Tribes always had a “fire carrier” – a senior member of the tribe whose role was to carry the embers of the campfire to the new campsite when the tribe moved on, in order to start the next fire and keep the original fire alive.

Maybe we can learn from that. Our businesses move on to new areas, but unless somebody is carrying the fire, the spark will go out.

Who’s your fire carrier?

The Fitzgerald Paradox

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

F.Scott Fitzgerald

It seems as though wherever we look at the moment, this quote applies.

The rate of change we are experiencing, the variety of options open to us, and the avalanche of different opinions showered on us means that we need to develop and access our first rate intelligence. This is not something we can outsource to another.

I suspect that in retrospect, this period will be defined as the end of an era. It’s difficult to know right now, as generally we don’t realise there’s been a revolution until its over.

All the signals seem to point to the end of an industrial era defined by structured organisations, hierarchies, nation states and relatively consistent “ways of doing things” and the start of something altogether more fluid. On the one hand, the types of job that have characterised the passing era are being increasingly disrupted by technology, and the human values that have often been suppressed for the sake of efficiency are becoming ever more important. We can’t write algorithms for love, purpose and meaning.

Right now, we have to be able to operate in both these areas. We are still dependent on the structures and practices of the passing era, at the same time as we are coming to terms with the emerging one.

In my practice, I often see some excellent work done in the creation of insight. These are often off site, and triggered by accessing those values that make us most human. However, when the off site finishes, those insights are almost always submerged as people go back into the workplace culture they were off site from. The people may have been on a personal journey, but the workplace didn’t tag along. The insights generated may stay with the individual but don’t make it into the workplace. Not infrequently, those who have experienced insight end up leaving in pursuit of somewhere or something that resonates more with their new found perspective.

We need to change that. We need to be able to hold these seemingly opposing ideas in mind whilst retaining the ability to function. If one idea or the other “wins” rather than collaborates we lose something – either our current performance, or our potential future.

I think the need is for “safe space” where ideas can be explored without being judged, and an opportunity created to synthesise new ways of operating that respect each of them.

It is not something that can we can “train” people in. It has to be owned, a product of that unique intelligence each of us has. It has to be nurtured and grown as we would a tender plant, or a young child.

The change is with us, whether we are ready or not.

We have choices to make, if we don’t want them made for us.

To borrow from Marshall Goldsmith, the operating models that got us here, won’t get us there.