Business leaders’ AI challenge

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The first thing to understand about leadership is that effective leaders don’t get anything done. They build organizations that get things done.

The second thing to understand is that effective leaders must master eight capabilities – eight tasks, which are (1) setting direction; (2) making decisions; (3) staffing; (4) delegating; (5) motivating; (6) managing team dynamics; (7) engineering the organizational culture; and (8) communicating.

Third: Each of the eight tasks takes time – something that’s in short supply for most business executives on a typical day at the office.

Fourth? The caliber of leadership in an organization determines, more than any other single factor, the organization’s success.

One more: Many of those in leadership positions don’t particularly enjoy practicing the leadership craft. Given a choice between leading people and just telling them what to do and hoping for the best, hoping, for a certain class of executive, has a lot of appeal.

All of which helps explain, to a significant extent, the excitement many business executives seem to be feeling about artificial intelligence right now. Staff a business with AIs instead of human beings and the need to review resumes and interview applicants goes away, as does motivating the employees they’ve hired, managing team dynamics, and engineering culture.

As for communicating, that changes from listening, informing, persuading, and facilitating to the weirdly conceived “prompt engineering” … apparently, AIs aren’t I enough that they can understand what’s needed from them without translation services provided by actual humans.

It’s enough to make you wonder why you should rely on Google Translate and its competitors.

There’s one more aspect of AI’s appeal as a replacement Homo sapiens that needs attention: From the perspective of running a business, many aspects of staffing are, if we’re going to be honest with one another, annoying. Humans, but not automata, disagree with management about what constitutes fair compensation. Treat humans poorly and they become grumpy and don’t give their work their best effort. Treat them worse and they’ll complain about their managers to HR, and there’s a whole process for that.

Then there’s benefits. Health insurance isn’t just expensive. It also requires a whole department just to administer it. Not to mention the complexities associated with tracking PTO.

We’ve all read the polls, surveys, and person-in-the-street interviews reporting employee concerns about AIs taking jobs away from we mere mortals.

What I haven’t seen is frank acknowledgement that, all things considered, the executives responsible for determining how the work of the business should get done can’t get rid of those pesky human employees (PHEs) fast enough.

Here’s what else I haven’t seen: Advice to our fellow PHEs that we need to frame the conversation about PHE replacement, not as hand-wringing worry and guilt, but as a matter of competitive advantage and disadvantage. That is, PHEs are competing with AIs for each job in the organization. They (You? We?) need strategies for making ourselves more desirable than the AIs that are positioned to replace us.

One possibility, to get things started, is rooted in the difference, celebrated in There’s No Such Thing as an IT Project, between processes and practices. Briefly, processes result in organizations “designed by geniuses to be run by idiots.” With process, the intelligence of experts is codified in the step-by-step process specification. With a practice, in contrast, success comes from the expertise of its practitioners.

Project management is a practice. An assembly line is a process. And right now, much of the opportunity for AI to supplant PHEs in the organization is in the process domain, where AIs probably will prove superior.

But process isn’t the only way to get work done in the business, and the role of AI in business practices will be quite different. Just as personal computers and smartphones have already resulted in “computer-enhanced humanity,” AI-based “Computer-even-more-enhanced humanity” can yield business practices that supplant rigidly specified business processes, resulting in quantum leaps in business flexibility and adaptability.

Bob’s last word: Viewed from the potential computer-enhanced humanity has for replacing inflexible processes with adaptable business practices, replacing human beings with AIs becomes a choice, not an inevitability. But PHEs can’t rely on business leaders to figure this out on their own.

It will be up to the PHEs of the world to make the pitch, and make it convincingly.

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