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Two Birds, One Stone: How Engagement Can Put an End to the AI Threat

By Geoffrey Moore, Jun 05, 2018

There are two serious crises looming over our workforce at present. The one getting all the attention is the threat of artificial intelligence to eliminate vast numbers of jobs. The one lurking in the corners is a pervasive lack of engagement among workers from all sectors of the economy. What people are neglecting to note is that the two are related.

Artificial intelligence can replace an unengaged worker. It cannot replace an engaged one. Here’s why. Unengaged behavior is by definition programmatic because that is how the mind processes efforts it is not focusing on. It is how we make coffee, pump gas, and set the table. It explains why even something as complex as driving a car can be susceptible to AI displacement. By contrast, engaged behavior is inherently novel. Each occasion is new, even if you have done it multiple times before. Think of playing golf, or making a signature dish recipe for company, or chatting with a child, or rereading a classic book. In each case you are bringing your full awareness to the experience, you are being mindful in the meditation sense of the word, which means you see things you would not otherwise see, think and feel things you otherwise wouldn’t, and inevitably make responses more creative than you would have anticipated. It is a wonderful feeling, and it is as far out of AI’s reach as one could imagine.

I make this point because current remedies for the AI crisis, instead of leaning in on engagement, actually ask us to flee our current jobs and seek redemption through STEM reeducation. I have two problems with this. One, a whole lot of people are not STEM-oriented by nature, so this is just another opportunity to set them up for failure. And second, there will never be the time nor the resource to retrain any meaningful cohort of displaced people. So, while I do support investing in STEM programs for the next generation, as part of a well-rounded curriculum, I don’t see them as a solution to either of the two crises we are speaking of here.

Of course, engagement is no magic solution either. For one thing, it cannot be gifted. True, good management can increase the probability of engagement, just as bad management can quash it, but at the end of the day, engagement is a personal responsibility. You have to grab the brass ring yourself. That said, you can teach the skill, and the best way to do that is to start by applying it to yourself.

How might you get more engaged at work? Well, first of all, stop focusing on your boss and what your boss wants. Freud famously worried about what do women really want, but I submit it is even harder to figure out what your boss really wants. In fact, my deepest wish is that you fire your boss, and then immediately rehire that same person as your client.

When you reimagine your boss as your client, you put yourself in the driver’s seat and set yourself up to engage. If you already have a great relationship, this will just make it more fun. But if you have something less than that, and for most unengaged workers this will be the case, then you have freed yourself from the oppressive parent-child relationship of boss-worker, and initiated an adult-adult relationship where you can operate from a position of strength. And here’s the thing—no one can stop you from doing this. It is completely in your power.

Now, as a consultant, I can tell you that from time to time I have had to work with some very difficult clients, so all is not a bed of roses. But I never felt oppressed by them; I always felt I had options; and thus I could always engage. But engage in what? The work, of course. And this is the second part of the formula—take a deep interest in whatever work is on your plate, no matter how mundane it may seem at first glance. We humans are inveterate problem solvers. What we need are interesting problems to solve. In some jobs, they are lying there right on the surface—figure out how to cure cancer, create a self-driving car, repair a piece of equipment, track down a criminal. But other jobs can look very bland at first glance—another set of books audited, another part to be fabricated, another theme to be graded, another blood sample to be drawn. Where’s the life in that?

To answer that question deeply, you have to start by asking, why is someone somewhere paying someone like me, to do this? Where is the value? When you look for the value, and then you look back at the actual task you are performing, you almost always find a disconnect. That is, some part of the workflow you are engaged with is not fit for purpose. Maybe it used to be in its day, but it is not now. Instead it falls into the category of stupid stuff. Indeed, it is that very stupid stuff that causes disengagement in the first place.

Now, you can blame this on your boss, re-enter the parent-child relationship, and sulk like a misunderstood teenager (is there any other kind?), or, you could take it upon yourself to fix things. Once you do that, regardless of the specific outcome, you are engaged. And once you are engaged, the world around you changes—people lean in, you see more cool things you could do, people give you more chances, work gets more interesting.

Now, if this does not come to pass, then maybe life is giving you a message that you need to change your type or place of work. That can happen. But it is not the most probable outcome. Engaging really does work—for the worker, the boss, and the enterprise as a whole. Given that, it seems fair to ask, what can you as a manager or executive do to foster more widespread engagement?

First of all, avoid cosmetic responses. Gamification comes to mind. A little of it can be fun, but to make it a steady diet is to trivialize the underlying work itself. Equally, avoid “Barney awards”—meaningless social gestures that are designed to honor first-level workers. They don’t. Instead they send a message that there is nothing really meaningful in the work you are doing, so we invented this artificial award to make up for it. Baloney. There is always something meaningful in the work anyone is doing. The job of the manager is to surface it and focus people’s attention on it.

My favorite example of this is an old one, but one that it is time to bring back to the fore. In the 1980’s the Japanese were kicking out butts in manufacturing, most notably in the automobile industry. They were producing higher quality cars at a much lower costs, and we could not figure out how they were doing it. What we learned was they were using statistical quality control as a means to engage their workforce in optimizing their production methods. Meanwhile, in Detroit we were building crap cars with a crap attitude and going on strike to get paid more for doing so. To say the least, it was a wake-up call.

As I said, we humans are inveterate problem solvers. When you engage your team in real problems, when solving those problems creates net new value for the enterprise that employs you, that is success of the highest order. It creates great returns, both financially and emotionally, and it sure as heck doesn’t have to worry about no stinkin’ AI.

Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse

About the author

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Geoffrey Moore is an author, speaker, and advisor who splits his consulting time between start-up companies in the Mohr Davidow portfolio and established high-tech enterprises, most recently including Salesforce, Microsoft, Intel, Box, Aruba, Cognizant, and Rackspace.

Moore’s life’s work has focused on the market dynamics surrounding disruptive innovations. His first book, Crossing the Chasm, focuses on the challenges start-up companies transitioning from early adopting to mainstream customers. It has sold more than a million copies, and its third edition has been revised such that the majority of its examples and case studies reference companies come to prominence from the past decade. Moore’s most recent work, Escape Velocity, addresses the challenge large enterprises face when they seek to add a new line of business to their established portfolio. It has been the basis of much of his recent consulting. Irish by heritage, Moore has yet to meet a microphone he didn’t like and gives between 50 and 80 speeches a year. One theme that has received a lot of attention recently is the transition in enterprise IT investment focus from Systems of Record to Systems of Engagement. This is driving the deployment of a new cloud infrastructure to complement the legacy client-server stack, creating massive markets for a next generation of tech industry leaders.

Moore has a bachelors in American literature from Stanford University and a PhD in English literature from the University of Washington. After teaching English for four years at Olivet College, he came back to the Bay Area with his wife and family and began a career in high tech as a training specialist. Over time he transitioned first into sales and then into marketing, finally finding his niche in marketing consulting, working first at Regis McKenna Inc, then with the three firms he helped found: The Chasm Group, Chasm Institute, and TCG Advisors. Today he is chairman emeritus of all three.


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