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Remember to be human

Ben Hornbrook, 14 February 2017

I worked on a project not so long ago that involved conducting in-depth qualitative interviews with around 15 people in an attempt to get the nub of the problem we were trying to solve. In presenting our findings, a summary of the themes of our conversations, we were asked: “This is all great, but do you have any quantitative data around what you heard?”.

This exchange highlighted to me what is a growing challenge; staying “human” in our fast moving, digital, data-obsessed world.

“In the machine age, only one type of organisation will thrive: a human one.” – Harvard Business Review

Increasingly, people seem to believe that something isn’t valuable unless it has a number attached to it. We are fixated on the ‘what’, rather than the ‘why’. However, our obsession with data is just one symptom of a much broader challenge. According to researcher Richard Watson (in his new book, Digital vs Human) the next 50 years will be about the relationship between people and technology. The challenge we are facing, he says, is that “…we have palaeolithic emotions, mediaeval institutions and godlike technology.”

This conflict is particularly a problem for larger organisations with legacy processes and systems that are unsuited to an approach that is “agile”, digital and “customer-focused”. (The fact that being “customer-focused” is seen as new or innovative is concerning for a number of reasons, but I’ll leave that for another time).

In the eyes of NAB CEO Andrew Thorburn, the biggest challenges facing organisations today are communicating, engaging people and collaborating; skills that can’t be automated. “Taking the time to think strategically about these things is hard,” he says.

I agree. What we need is people who can understand, synthesise and communicate information and ideas. We also need people who can manage others and develop meaningful relationships. Now more than ever we need to understand what it means to be “human” in our work.

In my view, this requires organisations and individuals to foster a number of skills and mindsets:

Asking tough questions – Questions are the language of strategy. We need to continually be asking, what problem are we trying to solve? Creative solutions nearly always come from an alternative definition of the problem.

Actively listening – We need to truly listen. Not just to data, but to what people are saying and why they feel the way the way do. This often involves asking follow up questions, and understanding that people follow their feelings and don’t always make rational decisions.

Developing relationships – Delivery and implementation challenges often arise not because of planning or technological problems, but people problems. This is because working and collaborating with people is personal. Many issues can be solved (at least partly) by people getting in front of each other more often, or having more focused conversations. Emotional intelligence is also one of the most underrated and underutilised leadership abilities.

Looking for simple solutions – When problems arise we are increasingly reaching for a technological fix (e.g. a new app). It’s important to remember that high-tech is not always best, and that not every problem needs a technological solution. Sometimes simple solutions work very well.

Switching off and taking time to think – The science shows that our use of devices conditions us away from deep reflective thought. Blocking out time away from technology to simply think is vital.

Ultimately, to be successful in our increasingly complex digital world, we must work to centre ourselves around our unique, human capabilities; understanding and engaging with people, actively listening and asking the right questions. Because what really matters is figuring out what the problem really is, and working creatively and collaboratively to solve it.

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