Efficiency comes at a price

We’re being offered an adventure right now. Whether we like it or not.

Our “normal” world has dissolved and all of us, businesses, and individuals, find ourselves at a threshold. James Campbell, he of the hero’s journey left us with a wonderful body of work, and a way of thinking about our journeys.

Source: Wkipedia

We are at a threshold, and we have two options. To answer the call to adventure, or to refuse the call.

Setting off

There are many who have no choice other than to accept the call, either through necessity, because we have been displaced or our business in one of the roughly 20% of SME that, according to news report this morning the banks will not help, or because of conviction, like the hordes of volunteers and businesses that despite their own hardships are helping others.

The NHS, who despite being a vast bureaucracy, have come out dancing.

They are crossing the threshold, setting off into the unknown. They will face a wide range of challenges to which they will have to rise (or may fall) or suffer the temptation to turn around and try to go back to a place that no longer exists.

They are to be hugely admired, and supported as they travel this road. They will reach a time when everything seems dark, but the vast majority will come through and find themselves in a different place, with new perspective and a way forward. It will not be easy, but as in any adventure, we have to keep going.

Staying put

There are others who will refuse the call.

We can already see who some of them are. The Banks seem to be behaving as we expect, having to be asked to delay dividends at this time (why did they have to be asked?) and who are applying “normal world” lending criteria to business despite being underwritten by government. Despite all the pretty advertisements, it is clear that little has changed in their culture in the last ten years.

Those who have an extraordinary sense of entitlement. Those on vast salaries, from contracted sports stars to managers running organisations they have no real stake in.

Those who feel helpless, let down by the system.

Why?

I find it difficult to believe that the difference is between good and bad people. I know many of those in “staying put” organisations who are kind, thoughtful and generous. They are there in numbers, so what makes the difference?

Those with real talent who are victims of circumstance and inflexible, automated sytems. Universal Credit, which I’m sure will work one day but right now, one day is a long way into the future.

Over the last thirty years, we have developed systems and protocols, amplified by technology, that have transformed efficiency.

In every area, from production to services to government. It has left us with two groups of people, those who design the systems for their own benefit, and those who service them.

Efficient systems are designed on a presumption of relative certainty and predicatability in their environment. They make assumptions about cause and effect, from the way we behave, to the way economies behave. They worship probability.

When conditions are right, they work incredibly well, even to the point where we give the systems dominace in many areas of decision making.

I hadn’t set out to bash the banks, but Fintech does create such perfect examples. Anybody who has tried to get a business loan (or a personal one) knows the routine. The account manager you are talking to has virtually no leeway, “it’s up to credit” – aka, an algorithm). The salesman grom whom I bought my car has more discretion.

The same is true of insurance, as anybody who gets a renewal knows. When we do a comparison, find comparable cover much cheaper, and contact our provider, we know the routine. An immediate slight reduction, and then a blank. The algorithm rules.

We end up with a system predicated on a tight range of normal.

That’s a problem when normal goes absent.

AI doesn’t do Intuition

One of our stunning abilities as humans is intuition. Knowing without calculation. Part instinct, part experience.

The firefighter who senses building collapse. The athlete who knows when to push. The artist who places the next brush stroke in just the right place. The doctor who senses what tests have missed.

It’s why we call in the Military at times like this. They know that every battle plan goes to ratshit the moment contact is made with the enemy, and train accordingly. The Royal Marine’s train to “adapt and overcome”.

AI is poor at adapting in short time frames.

Humans have evolved this way for a reason. It’s why we’re still here, and will continue to be here when what is going on is history.

By comparison, AI is staggeringly fast and accurate at what it does, but blindingly stupid when it comes to what’s important.

Probabilities never made a devent human decision. We don’t marry on probability, or make any important personal decision. We make judgements.

Dealing with what we are right now, in times of turbulence, relying on AI is a liability. It is a powerful technology with huge potential, but when serving humans, rather than systems, it has real limits.

What might it mean for us?

It’s a wake up call.

We have become a little blind. We have jumped on the efficiency bus based on short term benefits. It’s made our lives easier when things are normal, reduced prices and generated huge corporate profits, which in turn are very selectively distributed.

We’ve lost sight of the longer term, and the needs of those who follow us. It is quite simply unsustainable, and in many ways, we should be grateful for this reminder. It is, I suspect, the first of many adjustments we need to make.

We need to be awake to it.

Here are my three things to consider:

  1. Reflect. If your work is determined by algorithms, consider what it might look like in a few years. Algorithms don’t do joy, love, empathy or intuition, but you do. Leverage it.
  2. Simplify. This crisis has exposed all sorts of supply chains, from the logisitical to the emotional. Keep your supply chains short. Know who you are dealing with, and understand what their agenda is.
  3. Balance. The very best of human is being brought out by this crisis. The lockdown has given us a channce to see what quiet feels like, and to enjoy the absence of frantic. Remember what it feels like. You may have to go back to an environment that wants the old normal back, but you can plan an escape route to what matters to you.

Just as we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good, we musn’t let effective be the enemy of the effective.

Efficiency is a short term measure. It carries a long term price.

I also blog more specifically on this at www.originise.net

The shadow side of scale

As we adapt to the changes to our day to day lives consequent on coronavirus, things that were previously invisible emerge from the shadows.

In my Derbyshire village are three small shops; a local family butcher, a small co-op and a franchised chemist.

Their reactions to the challenges have been instructive:

– the butcher is just doing whatever it takes. Delivering, working late, communicating. We know he’s more expensive, and we really don’t mind. His goods and service are worth it.

– the co-op is more constrained by policy, but work round it. They know their customers, and enjoy what they do.

– the chemist, which used to be private but is now part of a large chain, is by some way the least adaptive. Although at this time maybe the most important of the three, it suffers from imposed scale and the consequent lack of flexibility. It’s prescriptions are compiled at an external central unit, meaning it takes four days from ordering to be available. All the other hallmarks of a lack of agency show. The staff are good, but comparatively impotent.

Scale is great when things are running smoothly and predictably, less so when not.

The difference in the way they operate has become something of a topic. When we get past the current problems, the butcher and the coop will have an enhanced reputation, the chemist will not.

Consideration, service and effort are remembered for a long time, whether we are shops, employers or employees.

When Rules Fray

Organisations and markets crave stability. Stability enables them to pursue efficiency, and mine every last piece of value from a known situation. Stability allows for structures and rules to be created, and for those in power to sleep comfortably at night.

It’s a bit of a problem then when, like any system, things begin to fray at the edges. People start to think differently and act differently. Those who assume they have authority find they don’t. Inconvenient truths, such as a pandemic, disrupt a beautifully designed and documented supply chain.

We find ourselves in the age of the business artist. Creative, observant, challenging and with her own sense of values and priorities. Unencumbered by legacy infrastructure, and unimpressed by an outdated culture.

The system of course tries to bring them back into line. Whether or not no 10 tames Dominic Cummings, or whether Brussels tames Facebook, the genie is out of the bottle.

More than ever, our future will be shaped by the insurgents who are chipping away at a comfortable but alarmed industrial aristocracy.

For our own part, relying on an established organisations for our future is increasingly risky.

When old rules begin to fray, it makes sense to make sure we have our own. So we can use them to navigate the turbulence that is on its way.