Trends

Test or Debug: What’s Your Style?

Frank Wilczek writes a column in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition, and one headline grabbed my attention. Better to Test Than to Debug.  His focus was on computer programmers, but the question and implications applies to all of us when we do creative work.

Is it better to draft an entire project (article, computer program, etc.), and then when there is a problem “debug” it, or to view the project as consisting of lots of small steps that you can take and ‘test” before going on to the next step?

While it would seem more efficient to “test” parts before having to “debug” the whole things, yet many people opt for the latter. For instance, as a teacher, I often encourage students to provide me with a brief outline before starting the entire paper, and a sizable number of students prefer to skip the “testing” phase and just hand in the completed work. Similarly, when I invite people to write a guest blog for AgeBrilliantly.org, I encourage them to fill out a simple outline form (the “test”) so they can get feedback first, and instead get full articles.

Wilczek believes that “debugging sucks” while “testing rocks”;  “haste makes waste”, and “the struggle for existence” is the test, while Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” is debugging.  What’s your style?  Why? Share with us.

The Risks of Automation Displacing Workers

In this blog, as well as my college courses, I’ve been raising the issues of how important it is for young people to focus on the power of automation to displace some workers, while also transforming industries and creating new jobs/careers. This is key inforamtion for young people making education decisions, and advisors (and parents) trying to guide them.

McKinsey & Company , in its July 2016 Quarterly magazine, began reporting on a study that analyzed 2000+ work activities for more than 800 occupations to help us understand where the greatest risks are.

They discovered that current demonstrated technologies could automate 45% of the activities people are paid to perform and that 60% of all curatesion could see 30% or more of their constitutent activities automated.

They discovered that automation will depend on five factors:

  • Technical feasibility,
  • Costs to automate,
  • The relative scarcity, skills and cost of workers who otherwise might do the activtiy;
  • Benefits (e.g. superior performance of automation vs. labor-costs)
  • Regulatory and social-acceptance.

The most automatable activites are those in which human activities are predictable. These including physical activites (e.g., moving things) and operating machinery in a predictable environment. Overall this is about 20% of what takes place in the US workplace, with much of it taking place in manaufacturing, food service, accomodations, and retailing. Less susceptible (for now) are activities which require cognitive and social skill decisions which are not predictable and require judgement and emotional intelligence. For instance, they calculated that 47% of a retail sales’ person’s activites have the techical potential to be automated, compared to 86% for bookeepers, accountants and auditors.

The takeaway: part of everyone’s job is automatable today and will increasingly be vulnerable if they are predictable and “easier” to do by machines; even more will become susceptible as algorithms for making decisions are developed. Advanced banking, which requires risk assessments based on more than numbers, such as character and potential, will need people, while “teller” jobs will continue to be replaced by ATMs and online banking. Future job risks will remain smaller for those work aspects which require creative decision-making.  For students seeking careers, the wise path is to find industries, careers and jobs, in which they can develop their “irreplaceable” skills and specialize in them, using technology to handle the automatable parts of their jobs.

What’s your experience with automation replacing jobs?  What do you think the future holds? Share with us your views.

Social Influence: Don’t Underestimate its Power

As a social psychologist with a strong interest in behavioral economics, I enjoy learning new ways that people influence one another – so we can use them for good purposes.

Jonah Berger, in Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior, identifies several factors that influence people’s decisions based on laboratory and field studies.

Let me share one example. Imagine you’re trying to get people to conserve energy. There are many ways to do so – focusing on their concern for the environment, their desire to save money, an appeal to good citizenship etc.  Studies have tried all these – and in general none have a real impact. However, encouraging people to follow a social norm – showing them on their electric bills that their neighbors are spending less than they are – and giving tem concrete suggestions for how they might also reduce energy consumption has had an impact.

Indeed, Yates and Laskey created a company Opower which sent consumers carefully targeted energy reports. Rather than an appeal, they simply report the difference in consumption patterns of people with their neighbors/ they also note that they can save energy by replacing certain electronics, turning off lights, adjusting light settings, etc.  The program led people to reduce energy consumption about 2%/ That might not seem a lot, but multiplied by the number of people they’ve reached so far it saved 6 trillion watt-hours or enough to take all homes in Alaska and Hawaii off the electric grid for a year. And, it reduced carbon dioxide – the equivalent of taking all cars in Chicago off the road for a year.

There are many other helpful hints in this book. For instance, if your sales (or other) team fell behind their goal, social influence can come to the rescue in certain cases – by unleashing the competitive spirits. If you’re using social influence techniques now, share them with us. If not, after reading the book share which you liked and will be applying!

Is Recruitment Part of Your Innovation Strategy?

Most of the time, people who embrace innovation is focus on the structural and cultural context of the company and how supports a strategy of innovation. For instance, many companies choose to take the team responsible for building a disruptive innovation and locate them elsewhere (It’s often referred to as the “skunk-works” group.)

 But we should go back a step – are we hiring people who embrace innovation? When we interview candidates are we looking for risk takers and entrepreneurs, people who thrive on a diverse set of experiences and interests? Or are we looking for people who are focused on their area of competence, attended top schools in that area and done very well and have some experience in that arena.

As an executive coach and consultant, I increasingly am encouraging executives to ask whether they’re looking for people who could become future leaders or not. If they are seeking the former, they need to investigate the person’s diversity of interests, experience with creativity and respect for innovation.  Standard job competencies like teamwork and collaboration, make them good workers – but may not be indicators of leadership skills which will encourage risk taking,

All too often, executives tell me they are considering merging or acquiring another firm in order to internalize more innovative energies. While inorganic approaches are good, better still is to do so organically. How do you recruit for your innovation strategy? Share some of your best practices.

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Build Staff’s Innovation Skills

We know that innovation is important to our companies and to our economy. How to maximize the opportunity is the challenge. I’ve shared several insights in this blog, and the presentations and webinars that I deliver on how companies can increase staff’s commitment to use their creative energies and be innovative.

Recently, Mike Nolan, Vice Chair of Innovation Solutions for KPMG, noted four effective steps business leaders can use:

  • Champion diversity of thought. Diverse teams are more likely to conceive if creative ideas than teams with similar backgrounds, skills and outlooks. For instance, many companies seeking to improve on their algorithms, sponsor a contest to people – and allow outsiders to join in. Many times, I’ve noticed, that the winners are people who are not part of the sponsoring company and often have different professional backgrounds!
  • Shift the mindset. Thinking creatively doesn’t come naturally to some, so you need to use different techniques to spur them. One of the most successful ways is to incorporate into your culture activities and norms that encourage it, such as “innovation circles” that meet regularly and creating a “stock market of ideas”.
  • Invest your own time. As with everything important in a company, the CEO and other leaders must serve as role-models for two reasons. First, as Nolan notes, leaders can’t tackle innovation on their own. A KPMG US CEO survey found 85% of chief executives don’t believe they have enough time to strategize about responding to disruption with innovation. So clearly they need to encourage others to be active. Second, cultures start at the top. Indeed, one of the most important roles of a chief executive is be a role model and set the tone for the values, activities and norms that should define the company. That’s true for ethics and innovation.
  • Incentivize and reward people meaningfully. To get your employees to commit to thinking creatively and channeling the energies into innovative activities, you need to reinforce such behavior. That means rewarding them for taking the risky, extra behaviors that might lead to the innovation. Unfortunately, as another study reported, most people feel their companies only reward them when their efforts succeeded. Such behavior is counterproductive when it comes to building staff’s motivation and skills for innovation.

Finally, consider offering special events to demonstrate your company’s commitment to innovation. We often hear of technology companies who sponsor hackathons. However, this commitment can be offered virtually anywhere. Ned Johnson, former Chairman of Fidelity Investments created Fidelity Labs almost 20 years ago to focus on innovation. New CEO Abigail Johnson is also “very focused on innovation.” The lab periodically runs hackathons in which employees from around the world assemble for two days to develop new ideas, build prototypes and pitch them to their colleagues and executives.

What steps are you taking to build your staff’s innovation skills? Share with us.

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