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Unleash Your Humanness to Thrive in the Digital Era
If you’ve been following along on this series, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve used one phrase several times: anything we can reduce to an algorithm, we will automate.
While I’m sure that we can debate the timing of how soon this will happen, I believe that this statement will strike most of you as an eventuality — it’s a matter of when, not if.
Artificial intelligence and various other forms of automation are coming on fast and will unquestionably change much of what we know about how work, organizations, and even society as a whole function.
And while a lot of these changes are going to be big picture, macro-level stuff, just as many (if not more) will be the kind of changes that affect us in a very personal way.
But this isn’t just about the wholesale transformation of work. The more important question is, what happens afterward?
The Big Idea
I believe that as we apply intelligence and automation to everything, it will actually have a normalizing effect.
Today, when you have fantastic technology, create really intuitive automation, or apply intelligence in a, well, intelligent way, that makes you stand out in the market and creates competitive differentiation.
But as applying artificial intelligence and intuitive automation becomes the rule, rather than the exception, the nature of value creation will change.
I believe that we will come to place ever-greater value on those things that machines cannot do — and those things will become the new source of competitive value.
It’s why I believe that as all of this comes to a head, we will enter what I call The New Human Age.
This era will be a time in which it will be our fundamental humanness — the very characteristics that make us humans — that becomes the essential driver of both organizational and personal value.
While it may seem that being human is a poor form of personal differentiation, the reality is that harvesting the value found in our humanness will be much more complicated than it sounds.
The industrial age demanded a workforce that could come to work and turn the dials of the industrial age machinery reliably, repeatedly, and consistently. Essentially, the Industrial Age needed robots.
Lacking real robots, however, we built an entire societal infrastructure that would enable us to create the human robots we needed. Over time, we designed everything from our command-and-control hierarchies to our educational system, to mass produce generations of human robots who knew how to follow directions and do what they were told.
While organizations may have given lip service to the value of things like creativity, imagination, and empathy (particularly in more recent years), these very characteristics were systematically de-emphasized and even demonized (giving rise to phrases such as curiosity killed the cat, etc.) by the institutions of the Industrial Age.
The reality was that when employees used creativity or exhibited empathy it often introduced variability into the well-oiled machinery that was essential to producing mass products for a mass market.
For most organizations, being human was bad for business.
As a result, most of us have learned that these very human characteristics do not serve us well at work. So we check them at the door, or worse, allow them to be beaten out of us.
So what does it mean to be human?
While this is another topic that we could probably debate for hours, after much research and pondering, I believe we can boil down the essence of humanness to three core characteristics: creativity, imagination, and empathy.
And I believe it will be those individuals and organizations that can unleash the innate creativity, imagination, and empathy within themselves and their teams that will be the ones that not only survive in the Digital Era, but thrive.
You may have noticed, however, the big elephant in the room here.
It’s easy to say that you need to be more creative, imaginative, and empathetic, but how do you actually do that. In practice, it’s very hard to “do” any of those things. They represent much more of “who you are” rather than something you “do.”
How, then, are we to unleash them?
The answer lies in breaking these human characteristics into a set of personal capabilities that we can uncover and foster. But you’ll need to wait until the next article in this series to learn how I believe you can do that. (Sorry for the tease!)
The Next Step
In the meantime, I have an exercise for you. I call it The Humanness Inventory.
Imagine that you walk into a cocktail party and start chatting with someone. What’s one of the first questions you will ask each other?
“So, what do you do?”
It’s natural and common for us to talk about what we do for a living. And inevitably, we’ll answer that question in functional terms: this is my role, here are the type of tasks I perform.
For this exercise, however, I’d like you to answer a different question at this imaginary cocktail party. “So, what makes you uniquely human?”
On a sheet of paper write down an inventory of three skills and capabilities that "make you uniquely human" — the skills and capabilities that fuel your creativity, imagination, and empathy — the unique abilities you have that cannot be easily automated.
The point of this exercise is to begin reprogramming ourselves to see the value in these human skills rather than just the technical and functional skills that we currently value.
A small warning: this will probably feel a bit uncomfortable and it will be tempting to write down a couple of bland, one-dimensional characteristics, and then call it a day. After all, we’ve been taught that these skills inherently lack value.
This process, however, will be a vital stepping stone as you move forward. So dig deep and get specific. You’ll be rewarded for being willing to, as my wife Laura calls it, “sit in your discomfort.”