Are We Human? Or Are We Managers?

Hopefully now you have The Killers playing on repeat in your head while you read this…

Catchy songs and titles aside, it’s a fair question. Have you ever asked yourself: What about the work I do makes me feel human? Or better, what am I doing that a well-trained AI couldn’t do?

I can’t pretend to know your answer, but I know mine (for both questions) is “Not much.”

So what does that mean for us? Well, for one, it means that most of our current jobs will be automated in the not-so-distant future. Which doesn’t sound too bad, since it’s been happening to humans for basically forever. It’s just happening a lot more frequently, and that’s making it a lot harder to predict the future, as far as our ability to be employed goes.

But there’s a Brightside, I think. So many people treat the rapid acceleration of the capabilities of AI as a doomsday scenario, and I think that’s a perfectly valid mindset to keep on hand if you’re the one developing the AI, so that you can help to prevent that from happening. But what about the rest of us?

I think we can take what we know about AI and how it works and apply that to how we work. And I don’t think it takes a Ph.D. in Math or Computer Science to do it.

At a really, really superficial level, a lot of AI is about optimizing a system to get the “right” answer at a minimal cost. And business? Well, it’s more or less the same.

Let’s explore that a little more: “[Business] is about optimizing a system to get the ‘right’ answer at a minimal cost.” OK, I can buy that. It’s almost certainly at least a little more complicated than that, but that’s not what we’re here for. We’re still trying to figure out if we’re humans or managers…

We’ll start by dissecting “the right answer,” to figure out what that could possibly mean. A lot of managers think the right answer is “make money,” and they end up conflating “the right answer” and “minimal cost” all in one easy-to-understand statement right off the bat. This can result in great returns for a while, but it doesn’t look at the whole picture. In the whole picture, we have actual people, and those people either work for us or buy our products. Those people aren’t mere points in 3-dimensional space (okay, maybe n-dimensional); they’re humans!

Aha! Okay, so maybe we’re humans. We’re getting somewhere.

But what about the part of the day where we aren’t laying out on the beach, playing with our dogs, going to the gym, or home brewing IPAs? That part doesn’t feel very human. Work feels rather robotic. In fact, a lot of my life on a day-to-day basis feels rather robotic. Paying bills, commuting to the office, sending emails…

You’re probably already thinking about how some of those things are already automated or how they could be. You can set up auto-pay to pay your bills each month, self-driving cars are on the horizon, Gmail can now predict “quick responses” for you so you don’t have to think about writing emails.

But have you ever stopped to think: Are these the right things for me to be doing? Why do I have the bills I have? Why do I commute to work? Why do I write emails? All good questions to ask. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn’t pay bills, I am saying this: Whether you’re solving an AI problem, a business problem, or a life problem, the first thing you should do is spend a decent amount of time trying to figure out precisely what problem it is that you’re trying to solve. Otherwise, when you get to a solution to your problem, you might end up with something as vapid as “Make money.”

Some wise yogis (I can’t claim to know the original source, but it was probably Patanjali) offer up a first step. They say you should ask yourself three questions: “Who am I? Why am I here? How can I serve?” As an exercise, spend a decent amount of time on each question and see what you come up with.

If you’re like me, with the chatter of life and work, those aren’t exactly the easiest questions to answer, and you’ll probably put off answering them for a while. Don’t. The better you get at answering questions like that, the less you’re going to feel like a robot. And the more time you spend actually thinking about the questions and the problems you’re trying to solve, the better. Abraham Lincoln said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Or at least somebody did. Abraham Lincoln quotes have always seemed dubious to me, ever since I saw that one about him creating the Internet…

Taking a step back, it looks like we have a clearer idea of what we mean by “the right answer” now. That is, it depends on the problem, and you should spend a lot of time defining the problem that you’re trying to solve. This isn’t new, and it’s not rocket science, but it is pretty useful. Gigantic corporations inject this into the fiber of their corporations through Six Sigma deployments; experts in experimental design have made it a best practice when practicing the scientific method. It’s not hard to imagine applying it to the life of one person (you) and getting decent results.

Okay, so what about “minimal cost”? For most business transactions, we can get amounts in terms of currency. For computers, we can reduce computing time. What about people?

For many, the idea of an opportunity cost is familiar. By forgoing one good/service/activity (A) for another (B), the cost of B is the cost of not doing A. This leads to many fun Economics 101 discussions about why nothing is “free.”

I know what you’re thinking, “But damn it, I want to be free!” Me too. I can’t promise to make you free, but I can promise to help you get started in framing your day to help you minimize “cost.” Every day, you spend money and you spend time. These are the costs you will minimize throughout the day. So in order to optimize your system, you should do ONLY things that get you closer to the right answer, and you should spend as little time (and money) doing those things as possible.

What about things that don’t get you closer to the right answer? Well, that’s why “ONLY” was capitalized in the last sentence of the previous paragraph. Don’t do those things. Yeah, it’s easier said than done, but now you have a lens through which you can look at each day. Once you have decided on the problem you’re trying to solve and have spent a chunk of time thinking about how you can serve, why you’re here, etc., then you can look at every single thing on your “to-do” list and decide whether or not you should do it. We’ll call the things you SHOULD do “value” and call the things you SHOULD NOT do “waste” (and we’ll go into more detail on this specific topic in a future post).

So what does this have to do with being humans or managers? I propose that the more time we spend doing things that are considered valuable to us, the more human we become. And yes, managerial tasks are waste. Meetings are waste. Creating a Work Breakdown Structure is a waste. But in many cases, it’s a necessary waste. There are ways to minimize management, but this requires a really good system to make it work.

Until we learn how to make really good systems for ourselves and our businesses, there will be some sort of management, whether your company is a “flat” organization or a hierarchy. In order to optimize our system, then, we need to spend a lot of time thinking about what it is we are even here to do, and then with the right mindset and the right tools, we can create a system for ourselves that gives us what we need without the need for management.

And hopefully we will become more and more human each day along the way.


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