Shyamsundar Ramanathan in Tradesman and skilled workers, Directors and Executives, IT - Information Technology Director - Head of Delivery QA • VirtusaPolaris Oct 14, 2016 · 5 min read · +800

What High Achievers know that Machines never will

What High Achievers know that Machines never willIs your work going to be replaced by machines and robots? We are also hearing more and more about driverless cars and does this mean people who drive for a profession are under threat. Robots can now do so much more than before so does that pose a threat to our work lives? What do humans have to do to be relevant in the future? These are some of the questions that Geoff Colvin raises and answers in his wonderfully researched book Humans are Underrated. The future is indeed exciting and understanding the trends can help us prepare for the future in a much better way.

The first three chapters of the book talk about how machines like Watson are beating humans (example is Jeopardy here).  Watson is loaded with the entire content of Wikipedia and also past clues of Jeopardy. There is no question that this is one area humans can’t win. I read in an article on tech crunch that Dr. John Kelly who leads the Watson team at IBM has said that the purpose of Watson was not to replace humans but the system will augment humans and help us make better decisions.

Whenever humans thought that there are certain things that computers can’t do, those assumptions has always been proved wrong. As an example when Deep Blue went against Gary kasparov in 1997 it could not move the pieces but now robots can do much more. Robots went into the Japanese Fukushima plant earlier than humans did when the radiation levels coming from the ruined nuclear plant were too high for humans to enter. Robotic hand can now pick up things from the table and place it in the appropriate places. This could help people who can give instructions to robots to pick and move stuff to appropriate places. I recently read about the firm called Grabit which has a new gripper technology that uses static electricity to hold an object. This way the Grabit hand can definitely pick objects.

In an article on Business Insider in 2014 Bill Gates  said the following at Washington, D.C., economic think tank The American Enterprise Institute “Software substitution, whether it’s for drivers or waiters or nurses... it’s progressing ..Technology over time will reduce demand for jobs, particularly at the lower end of the skill set..20 years from now, labor demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.”

Paul Ekman developed the facial action coding system to understand facial expressions. He built scenarios to find out about the 40 facial muscles with 3000 combinations. Computers can detect every one of the micro expressions which shows that even in the area of expressions which was considered uniquely human computers are getting better.  Importantly the computers will never miss even a single micro expression whereas the humans will.

An example where computers are making a significant impact is the profession of law where computers can predict Supreme Court decisions better than humans can. Computers can also determine how a certain judge gives a ruling which could result in fewer lawsuits. It doesn’t mean we will not have a world with lawyers but only that we will need fewer of them.  The new skills in demand by employers now are right brain skills like relationship building, cultural connectivity, teaming, co-creativity and brainstorming. The linear logical left brain skills will still be valuable (though some of those skills could be replaced by computers) but without the complementary right brain skills you can’t be relevant in today’s workforce.

Instead of wondering what computers cannot do the author argues that we need to understand the things that are deeply human. Here is where the book gets interesting for me. From the 4th chapter onward we are led to think deeply about our innate human qualities. Peter Drucker coined the term knowledge worker and Geoff Colvin argues that what we need now are relationship workers. I agree with that assessment. Outsourcing is here to stay and it will have its own challenges. However we will always need folks who can interface between the clients in the west with the teams in the east. Another book which also had these insights was A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink which was a phenomenal take on how the world was going to shift more towards right-brainers and he has been spot on. Geoff Colvin says becoming a great performer is becoming less about what we know and more about what we are like.

Firms like Narrative Science are producing articles written by computers and which are also published by leading magazines like Forbes to analyze data and trends. These also involve articles on corporate earnings announcements. The point is we can even hire a non-fiction writer to write for us but hopefully I can write whatever I need to before the computers completely take over this domain :).

There is a story about a group of sixth grader kids who went 6 days without any technology (which we can’t even imagine now) on a trip to the mountains and researchers found that their ability to deal with others on non-verbal emotional cues improved over a period of 4 days without technology. Generally these kids spend around 4 hours per day on devices and when they were not exposed to these devices for 4 days they improved their understanding of non-verbal emotional cues. That is why it is extremely important for us to disconnect from devices whenever we can. Digital detox is crucial to renew and rejuvenate. One example is Padmasree Warrior the former Chief Technology Officer of Cisco systems who takes a digital detox every Saturday.  This is a day is where there is no email, no voicemail, and a day dedicated to personal pursuits. I guess that is the secret to happiness and productivity in the 21st century.

There is a chapter on empathy and the author says empathy is the key 21st century skill. This is one area which is uniquely human. They have also found that the doctors who are sued are not necessarily incompetent but more that they are inconsiderate to their patients. Empathy is the key skill that we need to succeed in the work place. The moment you can understand another person’s emotion and able to relate to that it gives you a great advantage in understanding what makes humans tick.

Employers are valuing it more than ever. Empathy and interpersonal skills are very important for new job prospects. We need people who are more empathetic and collaborative. Understanding what the customer is really feeling is very important in today’s world of work. There is an example of Jim Bush who was in charge of American Express call center when he did away the preordained scripts and instead encouraged the call center employees to use their ingenuity to deal with customers over the phone.  This required a different skill set with strong emphasis on interpersonal skills.  Waiters who showed more empathy earned 20% more tips as per the research.  Talking with a happy person makes us happier and emotional contagion shows that we pick up the emotions of those we interact with on a regular basis. It is good for kids to read fiction as that can help them understand and relate to characters and their feelings. It increases the social sensitivity in kids.  Free play is also an excellent activity for kids to explore their feelings.

There is a chapter on empathy lessons from the US military. Paul Gorman was the person behind revamping the whole approach to military combat. The National Training Center was formed.  The military has something called the after action review. It happens immediately after the event.  In this meeting everyone removes their helmet in a sign of solidarity and it ensures that everyone is of the same rank. This enables a free flowing discussion and officers are provided direct candid feedback on what worked and what didn’t. The discussion is brutally honest.  The Battle of 73 Easting is discussed here as an example. This was a battle fought on 26th Feb 1991 during the Gulf War between US armored forces and those of the Iraqi Republican Guard. The US tanks moved in a V formation.  The main point here is the Iraqis had more tanks (US had only nine tanks against Iraqis 51 tanks) but still they were defeated because the US team had already gone through this in practice and they coordinated brilliantly. The US team had learned to work together and this enabled them to attack without hesitation. This was due to realistic training mimicking real life scenarios.  The key lesson here is training always trumps technology.

There is a nice chapter on how teams work. One example provided is Paul Azinger who was the US Ryder Cup captain in 2008. He led the team to its first victory over the European squad since 1999. The Ryder cup is where 12 players from US and 12 players from Europe go against each other. So folks who keep competing against each other throughout the year suddenly have to work together during this tournament and win it for their team.  What Azinger did was to pair players based on their personality and not based on their strengths. He broke them into four man groups based on what they were like as persons. One example is he placed steady unflappable folks together and it was a totally unconventional approach.  In fact Tiger Woods didn’t participate in the US team in 2008 and they still won. However the US team went back to its old ways and lost the next time.  Basically you can have a team full of superstars but if they don’t work together they can’t win.  As a leader you need to understand which members of the team can be paired together for effective optimal performance.  Deep human interaction is what makes teams highly effective. One example sighted was Steve Jobs maintaining the top team in Apple. In Aug  2011 when Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO the six person executive group he formed nearly 10 years ago was intact and this indicated group cohesiveness.

There is a chapter on storytelling and why it is crucial to tell stories. An example provided is Steve Denning who enabled great decision making at the UN with storytelling. He was Program Director of knowledge management from 1996 to 2000. Hardly anyone could get the knowledge that World Bank had at that time especially the developing world. One example is a Zambian trying to get a cure around malaria but the World Bank hadn’t made it easy for anyone to get this information. Denning started telling this story and many others which made the World Bank an example of how to do knowledge management.  More importantly the people in the poorer countries were getting more help than they ever had before due to his story telling.  After leaving the World Bank in 2000 he published books on leadership storytelling and is a global leader in the field. Basically story telling is crucial to engage your team to do even better.  It also releases the pleasure chemical oxytocin but do remember that story telling is effective only if it is authentic.

There is a chapter on innovation and creativity. Nothing revolutionary here but the main point is we have a better chance at producing truly innovative solutions when we collaborate and work together. Everyone knows about the memo from Yahoo to its employees when Marissa Mayer became CEO in 2012 which said that they don’t want folks to work from home as there is more creativity when you are at the office. The author says Marrisa Mayer is right with that decision and it has been proved that creativity is fostered with human interaction. Also designing cafeterias where there is more scope for interaction is a great way to spark random conversations which lead to greater creativity. For example Google has long waiting lines in the cafeteria and it was designed specifically to enable conversations. Bottom line is innovation happens in groups. Pixar was designed around a central atrium to enable interaction whenever people are on the move. The author says that creativity and trust are fostered in face to face collaboration more than anything else. Digital interaction is more effective when the folks involved already know each other. People who are other focused are more creative and givers give without any expectation of return. This comes from Adam Grant’s wonderful book Give and Take. It is a wonderful book and the main thesis is it is the people who give more than they take that succeed in today’s world.

There is also a chapter on women and how their empathetic skills make them invaluable in the workplace today. Basically when you add a woman to a group the overall group becomes smarter.  The more the women in a group the smarter it is. Research also shows that women perform better than men in areas that require a lot of social sensitivity.  Brain imaging shows that women can scan multiple things at the same time whereas men’s focus is narrower.

Final chapter is about winning in the human domain. There is an example about a senior IT Southwest Airlines employee (recently hired) who was surprised that people wanted to talk to him in the hallway and found that odd. Southwest later let him go because the company’s culture is such that it requires enormous human interaction even if your job description is to only work on computers. Just consider that for 3000 open positions Southwest receives 100,000 applications. There are some examples happening all around the world which is requiring our innate human qualities to surface. For example Harvard and Stanford are mimicking real-life scenarios for students with some seed money to start a new business to perform projects in real-time and get real world experience.  This is a good move because an MBA without real life scenarios being taught is not that effective. Practical methods of teaching are always better. They are also required to work in small teams engaging in high stake interactions and get immediate feedback on performance.

An example sighted is that Google at one time hired only people with stunning test scores but now they are very much interested in learning about how individuals work in groups and their interpersonal skills. Of course the best source to understand about how Google hires is the wonderful book “Work Rules” by Laszlo Bock which has excellent information.

Geoff Colvin says that while engineering will always remain relevant those who are learning from humanities will also succeed in the future workplace. 

We will always crave human qualities and humans are still very much required so don’t worry that your work will go away. Do remember that you just need to get back to the innate human qualities that make you special. One example is when The Cuckoo’s Calling was released initially it hardly sold because J K Rowling used a pseudonym Robert Galbraith. However when she later said that she wrote the book it immediately became a best seller. Obviously the connection we have with names and humans do matter.

Finally not in the book but I want to give the example of Tiger Woods because of one thing he did better than anyone else. He basically did more self-evaluation about his game even before anyone thought it is required. This is important because no one else is going to do the changes for you to improve yourself.  Tiger Woods who had already reached the apex of sporting achievement decided to change his swing to get that extra edge. This is what he said after winning the Masters tournament by a record 12 strokes in 1997 “You can have a wonderful week...even when your swing isn’t sound. But can you still contend in tournaments with that swing when your timing isn’t good? Will it hold up over a long period of time? The answer to these questions, with the swing I had, was no. And I wanted to change that.”  This is clearly the mindset of a true champion. Please read my article on developing a Champion Mindset.  

Overall it is an absolutely fascinating book which is very relevant for today’s workforce. My take is that this book will be valuable even after 5 or 10 years. Please do read it to get the complete examples and inspiring stories with amazing research. It is available in Amazon here.  I also enjoyed Geoff Colvin’s earlier book “Talent is overrated” which has excellent information on what you need to become a world class performer.

I hope you enjoyed reading this article.  The views expressed here are my own and do not represent my organization.