As I walk around in numerous companies, one of the things that never ceases to amaze me is the number of people living out their lives in pretty poor jobs. Repetitive jobs, where they have lots of responsibility but little authority and where company processes, guidelines and rules dictate the way the work is to be done, with little to no freedom for the individual.
My typical response is something along the lines of “why the hell are you still in this job,” though expressed more politely. The typical answers I get are that things aren’t that bad, that there are good reasons why the job is structured as it is and that the individual has settled into the role. Of course, freedom is often defined as a cage where your wings don’t touch the boundaries, so perhaps I’m overly sensitive to being constrained and straight-jacketed into a boring, repetitive job.
We’ve all seen the cartoon by KC Green where the dog sits drinking coffee in a burning house claiming that “this is fine” and, while being lit on fire, claims that things will be OK. And we’ve all heard the story about the frog staying put in a pot with heating water until it dies. These being cautionary tales, the fact of the matter is that many people settle and simply accept reality as it is, no matter how poor the circumstances are.
My main concern is that so many of these jobs could be automated to the point that computers would take care of the majority of the drudgery and leave us humans to the more creative and unique tasks for which we’re primarily suited. Now, as a society, we’ve automated the last swaths of repeatable processes, so often the tasks not yet automated have some inherent difficulty that complicates automation. In my experience, there are at least three main drivers: inertia, regulation and forms of technical difficulty.
First, inertia is concerned with getting stuck in the past and continuing to do things a certain way because we’ve always done them that way. There’s a part of us that appreciates and recognizes the importance of traditions and easily abides by the rules dictated by these. This is difficult to change within the walls of companies, but even harder when these traditions cover an entire business ecosystem. A good example are shipping containers, which were invented as a concept before World War II, commercialized in the 1950s and still took decades to achieve broad adoption across the business ecosystem. This was despite the enormous reductions in transportation costs brought by these containers.
Second, regulation tends to freeze an industry in time based on what the best practice at the time of regulation happened to be. Although regulations are usually introduced with the best of intentions, in many cases they’re a good reminder of why the road to hell is paved with them. Many regulations demand human effort in a process, leading to high costs and, consequently, slow processes as companies seek to reduce costs by minimizing the human effort spent on following the regulations. Any innovations that would replace humans, reduce costs and accelerate the industry are blocked by regulation. An illustrative example is the banking industry where fintech startups are trying really hard to disrupt way too profitable incumbents only to be shot down by regulators when they start to become even a little successful.
The third reason blocking automation tends to be technical difficulty. Some part of the process requires human intellect as we don’t know how to automate it. This may include image recognition, interpreting video streams or processing natural language, to mention a few examples. The interesting thing is that AI has become incredibly good at these tasks and is more than likely to offer partial or even complete solutions.
The challenge is to be more like George Bernard Shaw’s unreasonable man and to continue to adjust the world to oneself. Rather than accepting the status quo, proactively search for pains. Once we find these, refuse to accept arguments claiming that this was tried before and failed. Instead, approach your work and the work in your organization with a Zen beginner’s mind, recognizing possibilities due to new technologies or other reasons and then acting on these. Don’t act as a jaded expert who has seen it all, but aim to see every day afresh. In the end, innovation is seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.