Leave the racing to the machines

Leave the racing to the machines

The Economist ran this image with an article that added to a growing debate on whether man’s ability to innovate has stalled.

The debate, if you haven’t had a chance to follow it, goes something like this:

For the motion:  Those that believe that mankind have run out of things to invent and the innovations that dramatically changed the world, like the light bulb and internal combustion engine, are unlikely to happen again anytime soon.  The anecdotal evidence is obvious – if we were capable of such innovation then surely, with all our advanced technology, we would be living in a Jetson-like utopia.

It was nicely summarised by David Theil, the founder of PayPal, with the words “we wanted flying cars but got 140 characters”.  See this for more on this side of the debate.

Against the motion: Those that believe that mankind’s best is yet to come. The Information Technology and Communication revolution (the 3rd after the steam-engine and electricity) hasn’t had the chance to bed in properly and we’re only just starting to pick up a head of steam.  One of the key issues often cited, is that the speed of technological evolution is so great that individuals and institutions are unable to understand it fast and fully enough for truly revolutionary thinking to take place.

Click here for more on this side of the debate.

The balloon debate appeal of the above summaries belies the serious fact that in mature markets, technology-driven efficiencies are putting people out of work faster than technology-driven innovation are creating new work to put them in.

We’re firmly in the camp that believes that another great revolution is shortly ahead of us and certainly prescribe to the view that the effort required to keep pace with all the new tech developments and their (often fleeting) associated social trends, can be very distracting indeed.

It strikes us that it’s exactly because there hasn’t been the “Big One” that there is so much confusion. Many industries (and their R&D and marketing departments) are swinging around a little wildly in an attempt to pick one (or two or three) smaller tech developments in the hope that they will be the next emerging ‘big thing’.    The trouble is of course, especially for the larger and more rigid organisations, that this approach is expensive and mightily confusing for employees and customers alike.

Going back to the insight on the issue of information overload, we think that the best course of action is to clear some space for the would-be innovator – give them some long-term direction and let them go to work.  The three areas to focus on are people, direction and priorities.

On a people level, the constant pressure of an overloaded work schedule (in part driven by unclear prioritisation) is a big an obstacle to game-changing evolution as any, and the one most frequently cited.  Freeing up schedules by stripping out the tasks that aren’t going to make a real difference is a cathartic and energising exercise.  Plus, most of the more menial tasks (anything that’s prescribed) will probably be done by a computer in the next couple of years, so now is the time to encourage people to invest in developing their competitive edge over machine.

At a company direction level, short-termism (often synched to reporting dates) and frequent reprioritisation (usually caused by emerging tech and associated fleeting consumer trends) compounds the ‘people’ issues.  Even in cultures where ‘failing-forward’ is encouraged, “forward” can often be “in every direction” as the innovation team is wrong-footed by the aforementioned.  Liberating a company’s ability to innovate by defining a single, emotive purpose for employees to invent (and fail) towards has a far greater chance of long-term growth and real competitive edge.

On a prioritisation level, this can be far better managed once a single-minded purpose is in place.  Spending time asking consumers what they want will, more often than not, result in recommendations to make marginal changes to experience they already know.  Instead, investing time working out what customers and you need and then finding the right technology to deliver it will not only be more efficient but a lot more fulfilling.

One way then, to win the race against the machine, might be to just stop racing it for a minute.  Create enough time, space and direction to let human invention run its course…and then get the machines to make a machine to make it happen.

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