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How Technology Stimulates Innovation and Empowerment


There are two seemingly conflicting trends in organizations regarding technology and innovation. The first is a trend towards autonomy, which focuses on organizational goals, as well as cooperation and empowerment. The second is a trend towards automation, which simplifies work requirements and can result in fewer workers. I argue you can have both autonomy and automation… You simply need to focus on improving the autonomy at all levels as you increase the automation.

The autonomy approach is described by Fred Kofman, who promotes cooperation and voluntary exchange for mutual gain. According to this theory, motivation, culture and collaboration produce better solutions than pure self-interest. In short, organizations should focus on winning for the organization, and not just the individual silos of participants.

Organizations in Silicon Valley often devote their attention to things like automation and AI. However, they are held accountable for the trend that some jobs are being replaced by robots. This includes jobs like taxi drivers (replaced by self-driving cars), hedge fund managers (replaced by algorithms), or financial journalists (replaced by chatbots).

This idea was brought home to me a few weeks ago, during a visit to an 1850’s restoration community Sturbridge Village. They had little cottages doing various tasks to make clothing (like cleaning wool, spinning, weaving and sewing). The work that went into production of a few yards or one shirt was incredible. In contrast, my experience in the apparel industry was that we could weave millions of yards in short periods, thanks to automation.

Related: 7 Simple Ways for How to Prioritize Effectively

Similarly, Google and others are developing AI programs to write and develop artistic works. They argue that this technology will greatly enhance an artist’s ability to create, while others argue that it will just replace artists. My own experience in the apparel industry is that automation greatly enhances the artist’s potential by reducing mundane tasks. Instead of it regretting the displacement caused by automation, we need to focus more on realizing its potential for individuals. For example:

  • Don’t let automation or analytics give you one simple answer. Programs and situations are diverse, and require a variety of solutions. A great example is the success of the Golden State Warriors and LeBron James in basketball. The Warriors win by an integrated team that gets the ball to the open man, and passes more than any team in history. LeBron’s teams have won by making LeBron the focal point, and supporting with complimentary plays and personnel.
  • Similarly, organizations need to consider their goals and processes. Do you need more expertise and experience, or more creativity? Are you maximizing the potential of your stars and developing collaborative solutions? Do you need diverse expertise on a problem?
  • Most people I see working care about their jobs and try to do them well, regardless of pay or status. A very simple recommendation is just to consider how can we can empower our staff to do even better. We should acknowledge that there will be mistakes, but they will be far less than the total gains.
  • “Need to know” should be a dead phrase, so help staff understand goals and strategies. The more we trust staff to understand these strategies, the more likely they are to embrace them.
  • I believe “leadership” is an obsolete term. The best leaders I have seen are people like head nurses, restaurant expediters, triage managers, and legal assistants. They coordinate and manage various (and frequently much higher paid) participants. The process involves gaining their cooperation and motivation to execute a great final result. In contrast, authoritarian (rather than expert or professional leadership) is usually more harmful than helpful.
  • Many financial and analytical models focus on a single or best solution. I recommend focusing on the parameters of alternative models. Then you can manipulate the model to evaluate alternatives. For example, we have developed a dynamic operating profit model that allows you to analyze the interaction and impact of various factors like price, cost, margin, distribution marketing etc. It has been effective in helping clients understand retail and online opportunities.  Download it here.

In summary, automation and AI offer great opportunities to improve performance, especially when used with analytics. These strategies should also include empowering the organization. In particular, we should continuously challenge assumptions, review alternatives and evaluate progress.

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