The world is changing at a pace that, depending on your outlook, you may find exciting or you may find really quite terrifying. Tech is innovating faster than we can get to grips with. The advancement is feeding further advancement, so that what’s new today will be out of date tomorrow.
As a consequence, we’re all having to learn to be stupid – to be wise enough to know what we don’t know – and to recognise that there can be no more resting on our laurels when it comes to acquiring skills, or overconfidence when predicting future trends. In business, we’re all children again.
I remember a few years ago, there was a long and fascinating online essay being shared a lot. It explored the idea that the pace of change is now so quick that were someone from, say, Jesus’ time to time-travel into the 21st century (I pictured her in an Apple store during the Christmas sales…), she might simply drop dead from the shock. The writer theorised that the time required between the time traveller’s own time and the present for this ‘drop dead’ effect to take place is getting shorter and shorter.
But if she didn’t recognise anything else, the one thing that 2000-year-old would recognise is the human face. Frowns. Smiles. She would recognise humanity all around her, however strangely adorned.
There is a lesson here for leaders. In some ways, we must allow chaos to reign when it comes to tech. Let it race on ahead: we cannot catch it. We must simply do what we can at our own speed, without losing all sight of ourselves as people. Indeed, the more that tech digitises our lives – our very brains – the more we must reach out to each other in non-tech, back-to-basics ways.
Even recruitment is being automated. And I don’t just mean LinkedIn – this Business Chief article mentions that chatbots are already being used to screen candidates. But please don’t let the tech bells and whistles blind you to the possibility of finding the right person via less ‘sophisticated’ means. The robots really, really don’t know (yet!) what makes for a rounded human being. You do.
When so much is in flux, it is reassuring and blessedly humanising to remember that there are certain things that bind us all. As leaders, let’s keep coming back to those, even as our brains digitally fizz. And let’s keep on coming back to each other, even as our attention is dragged from one screen to the next and then back again, on an endless loop.
Here are a handful of suggestions – or are they pleas?! – to help move us towards human-centric leadership.
Don’t let human-centric design replace the human touch
There are lots of ways we can give products the flavour of human connection, whether that’s on our chirpy ‘About Us’ page or in the conversational language of our job ads. As tech develops, the sophistication of this effect is only going to be finessed. But it is an effect. It can never replace the genuine connection of a face-to-face or even the ancient technology known as the ‘telephone call’!
Allow conversations to shape the business as much as data does
The data will tell you a lot of things, and it will tell you them very convincingly. You can’t argue with science, after all. But data will only work with what you feed it. Data also misses a lot out. It can be incredibly reassuring to feel we are working with data-led conclusions. But if your team argues against these conclusions, do you listen? If you’re besotted with data, you ignore your team. If you have any sense, you recognise that the calculation or program that looks sophisticated now will look Stone Age in a few years’ time, and opt to listen to the biggest computers in the office – your team’s brains.
Recognise that young people do crave human connection
I find it incredibly heartening that young people seem to recognise that there’s something not quite right about being digitally anchored in their smartphones 24/7. In this Vox interview, historian of science Michael Bess says something similar. He worries our smartphones are going to make us “lose our connection to reality altogether.” But the thing is, as much as we (and they) might recognise the issue, there are still students of Bess “walking around campus mindlessly staring at their phones”. Same goes for non-students. So while people recognise that there’s an issue, they’re still allowing themselves to be seduced by the digital world. That’s fine – it’s a very seductive world – but offering genuine human connection in what Bess calls the “rich and unpredictable” real world is always going to mean more than yet another digital nudge.