To Be Your Best, Try Being “Uncomfortable”

Todd Wilms

Uncomfortable helps us grow, iStock_000014014256XSmall.jpgIt seems like our nature is geared toward comfort and the pursuit of comfort.  Isn’t that the goal of our labors – to achieve some coziness? To be your best, however, the place to be is “uncomfortable.”  This is not to mean wearing your pants too tight, or putting on Red Sox attire at Yankee Stadium.  “Uncomfortable” motivates and clarifies our direction. It gives us insight into the problems around us and our very best innovations come from those very uncomfortable places.

Best Leaps Forward Come From Uncomfortable

The best ideas are cultivated from an uncomfortable place.  We are motivated and driven to resolve that conflict which causes discomfort.  This could be in the form of improving quality of life, increasing productivity, cultivating community, etc.  But there is something that drives us to resolve that issue.  The companies we respect and admire were founded on resolving something that was not in the market before that time.  Apple, Facebook, Amazon, SAP, etc. were all grown from that original problem to solve.  This absolutely applies to consumer brands as well.  The Greek Yogurt Wars have only just begun, but were created from a need to enjoy something in the US that our European counterparts have enjoyed for generations.

Being comfortable with the world around us makes us lazy, removes stimulation, and hinders our motivation.  Conversely, being uncomfortable forces us to be creative and resolve the discord.

Too Much Comfortable Thinking

Working the conference circuit or just having companies reach out to me because of where I work, there is a commonality to these product or partnership pitches that put me to sleep (with two little kids at home, these mental naps are a high point of my days).  As soon as I hear these 6 magic words, I know I can tune out;  “We are gonna be the next . . .” for me is just like “meeting Ambien.”   This is a classic example of “comfortable thinking.”  This tells investors, vendors, partners, and the market that your idea isn’t original and isn’t born from some fundamental problem to solve.  It is base and devoid of originality. It can be based on money, or ego, or boredom, but it is seldom – if ever- based on solving a problem in the market, about solving the “uncomfortable.”

There is nothing wrong with building a better mousetrap, but to what aim – what does that mousetrap do?  What problem to solve?  Saying you are the next X (“Facebook” and “Apple” are two of my favorites to hear) describes your aspirations, but not your motives.  What can you hope to accomplish by just being “better than” – for the sake of just being “better than.”   We don’t need one more feature on our phones to make it the proverbial “Swiss Army Knife” of gadgets just so that we can have another feature for marketing to talk about.  “It’s a phone, a camera, a GPS,  . . . a floor wax and a dessert topping.” (For fans of old SNL!!)  If the feature solves some need and alleviates that tension in our lives, we will beat a path to your door.

How To Think “Uncomfortable”

Think about the problems around you.  What things are causing you and others some anxiety?  This type of thinking need not be applied only to new products or solutions, or new companies.  Resolving anxiety and conflict can be a powerful motivator in your personal life, around your home, with your transportation, etc. Your ability to be successful is directly related to how often you can put yourself in uncomfortable and challenging situations.  Your greatest areas of growth and achievement come because you have ventured out of your comfort zone and tried something new and different.

Ask yourself this:  aside from being busy and overtaxed in your life, what is causing you the greatest stress and making you the most uncomfortable?  Instead of dreading that aspect of your life, embrace it.  Don’t run from it, run to it.  Put your energies into resolving that strain. That is where you will be your best!

There is a reason birds kick their young out of their nests.  Because falling is uncomfortable.  How many would learn to fly if the nest was warm and mom brought you 3 meals a day?

“A person’s success in life can usually be measured by the number of uncomfortable conversations he or she is willing to have.” – Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-hour Workweek

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Interested in learning what makes me uncomfortable, besides folk music and carnies?  Follow Todd on Twitter @toddmwilms or connect on LinkedIn as I continue to dish-out uncomfortable counsel.

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Todd Wilms

About Todd Wilms

Todd Wilms previously held the role of Head of Social Business Strategy at SAP. He was responsible for leading SAP’s social business strategy across the company.

The Future Of Supplier Collaboration: 9 Things CPOs Want Their Managers To Know Now

Sundar Kamak

As a sourcing or procurement manager, you may think there’s nothing new about supplier collaboration. Your chief procurement officer (CPO) most likely disagrees.
Forward-thinking CPOs acknowledge the benefit of supplier partnerships. They not only value collaboration, but require a revolution in how their buying organization conducts its business and operations. “Procurement must start looking to suppliers for inspiration and new capability, stop prescribing specifications and start tapping into the expertise of suppliers,” writes David Rae in Procurement Leaders. The CEO expects it of your CPO, and your CPO expects it of you. For sourcing managers, this can be a lot of pressure.

Here are nine things your CPO wants you to know about how supplier collaboration is changing – and why it matters to your company’s future and your own future.

1. The need for supplier collaboration in procurement is greater than ever

Over half (65%) of procurement practitioners say procurement at their company is becoming more collaborative with suppliers, according to The Future of Procurement, Making Collaboration Pay Off, by Oxford Economics. Why? Because the pace of business has increased exponentially, and businesses must be able to respond to new market demands with agility and innovation. In this climate, buyers are relying on suppliers more than ever before. And buyers aren’t collaborating with suppliers merely as providers of materials and goods, but as strategic partners that can help create products that are competitive differentiators.

Supplier collaboration itself isn’t new. What’s new is that it’s taken on a much greater urgency and importance.

2. You’re probably not realizing the full collective power of your supplier relationships

Supplier collaboration has always been a function of maintaining a delicate balance between demand and supply. For the most part, the primary focus of the supplier relationship is ensuring the right materials are available at the right time and location. However, sourcing managers with a narrow focus on delivery are missing out on one of the greatest advantages of forging collaborative supplier partnerships: an opportunity to drive synergies that are otherwise perceived as impossible within the confines of the business. The game-changer is when you drive those synergies with thousands, not hundreds of suppliers. Look at the Apple Store as a prime example of collaboration en masse. Without the apps, the iPhone is just another ordinary phone!

3. Collaboration comes in more than one flavor

Suppliers don’t just collaborate with you to provide a critical component or service. They also work with your engineers to help ensure costs are optimized from the buyer’s perspective as well as the supplier’s side. They may even take over the provisioning of an entire end-to-end solution. Or co-design with your R&D team through joint research and development. These forms of collaboration aren’t new, but they are becoming more common and more critical. And they are becoming more impactful, because once you start extending any of these collaboration models to more and more suppliers, your capabilities as a business increase by orders of magnitude. If one good supplier can enable your company to build its brand, expand its reach, and establish its position as a market leader – imagine what’s possible when you work collaboratively with hundreds or thousands of suppliers.

4. Keeping product sustainability top of mind pays off

Facing increasing demand for sustainable products and production, companies are relying on suppliers to answer this new market requirement.

As a sourcing manager, you may need to go outside your comfort zone to think about new, innovative ways to collaborate for achieving sustainability. Recently, I heard from an acquaintance who is a CPO of a leading services company. His organization is currently collaborating with one of the largest suppliers in the world to adhere to regulatory mandates and consumer demand for “lean and green” lightbulbs. Although this approach was interesting to me, what really struck me was his observation on how this co-innovation with the supplier is spawning cost and resource optimization and the delivery of competitive products. As reported by Andrew Winston in The Harvard Business Review, Target and Walmart partnered to launch the Personal Care Sustainability Summit last year. So even competitors are collaborating with each other and with their suppliers in the name of sustainability.

5. Co-marketing is a win-win

Look at your list of suppliers. Does anyone have a brand that is bigger than your company’s? Believe it or not, almost all of us do. So why not seize the opportunity to raise your and your supplier’s brand profile in the marketplace?

Take Intel, for example. The laptop you’re working on right now may very well have an “Intel inside” sticker on it. That’s co-marketing at work. Consistently ranked as one of the world’s top 100 most valuable brands by Millward Brown Optimor, this largest supplier of microprocessors is world-renowned for its technology and innovation. For many companies that buy supplies from Intel, the decision to co-market is a strategic approach to convey that the product is reliable and provides real value for their computing needs.

6. Suppliers get to choose their customers, too

Increased competition for high-performing suppliers is changing the way procurement operates, say 58% of procurement executives in the Oxford Economics study. Buyers have a responsibility to the supplier – and to their CEO – to be a customer of choice. When the economy is going well, you might be able to dictate the supplier’s goods and services – and sometimes even the service delivery model. When times get tough (and they can very quickly), suppliers will typically reevaluate your organization’s needs to see whether they can continue service in a fiscally responsible manner. To secure suppliers’ attention in favorable and challenging economic conditions, your organization should establish collaborative and mutually productive partnerships with them.

7. Suppliers can help simplify operations

Cost optimization will always be one of your performance metrics; however, that is only one small part of the entire puzzle. What will help your organization get noticed is leveraging the supplier relationship to innovate new and better ways of managing the product line and operating the business while balancing risk and cost optimization. Ask yourself: Which functions are no longer needed? Can they be outsourced to a supplier that can perform them better? What can be automated?

8. Suppliers have a better grasp of your sourcing categories than you do

Understand your category like never before so that your organization can realize the full potential of its supplier investments while delivering products that are consistent and of high quality. How? By leveraging the wisdom of your suppliers. To be blunt: they know more than you do. Tap into that knowledge to gain a solid understanding of the product, market category, suppliers’ capabilities, and shifting dynamics in the industry, If a buyer does not understand these areas deeply, no amount of collaboration will empower a supplier to help your company innovate as well as optimize costs and resources.

9. Remember that there’s something in it for you as well

All of us want to do strategic, impactful work. Sourcing managers with aspirations of becoming CPOs should move beyond writing contracts and pushing PO requests by building strategic procurement skill sets. For example, a working knowledge in analytics allows you to choose suppliers that can shape the market and help a product succeed – and can catch the eye of the senior leadership team.

Sundar Kamak is global vice president of solutions marketing at Ariba, an SAP company.

For more on supplier collaboration, read Making Collaboration Pay Off, part of a series on the Future of Procurement, by Oxford Economics.

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Sundar Kamak

About Sundar Kamak

Sundar Kamak is the Vice President of Products & Innovation at SAP Ariba. He is an accomplished Solutions Marketing and Product Management Execuive with 15 + year’s broad experience in product strategy, positioning, SaaS, Freemium offering, go-to-market planning and execution.

Transform Or Die: What Will You Do In The Digital Economy?

Scott Feldman and Puneet Suppal

By now, most executives are keenly aware that the digital economy can be either an opportunity or a threat. The question is not whether they should engage their business in it. Rather, it’s how to unleash the power of digital technology while maintaining a healthy business, leveraging existing IT investments, and innovating without disrupting themselves.

Yet most of those executives are shying away Businesspeople in a Meeting --- Image by © Monalyn Gracia/Corbisfrom such a challenge. According to a recent study by MIT Sloan and Capgemini, only 15% of CEOs are executing a digital strategy, even though 90% agree that the digital economy will impact their industry. As these businesses ignore this reality, early adopters of digital transformation are achieving 9% higher revenue creation, 26% greater impact on profitability, and 12% more market valuation.

Why aren’t more leaders willing to transform their business and seize the opportunity of our hyperconnected world? The answer is as simple as human nature. Innately, humans are uncomfortable with the notion of change. We even find comfort in stability and predictability. Unfortunately, the digital economy is none of these – it’s fast and always evolving.

Digital transformation is no longer an option – it’s the imperative

At this moment, we are witnessing an explosion of connections, data, and innovations. And even though this hyperconnectivity has changed the game, customers are radically changing the rules – demanding simple, seamless, and personalized experiences at every touch point.

Billions of people are using social and digital communities to provide services, share insights, and engage in commerce. All the while, new channels for engaging with customers are created, and new ways for making better use of resources are emerging. It is these communities that allow companies to not only give customers what they want, but also align efforts across the business network to maximize value potential.

To seize the opportunities ahead, businesses must go beyond sensors, Big Data, analytics, and social media. More important, they need to reinvent themselves in a manner that is compatible with an increasingly digital world and its inhabitants (a.k.a. your consumers).

Here are a few companies that understand the importance of digital transformation – and are reaping the rewards:

  1. Under Armour:  No longer is this widely popular athletic brand just selling shoes and apparel. They are connecting 38 million people on a digital platform. By focusing on this services side of the business, Under Armour is poised to become a lifestyle advisor and health consultant, using his product side as the enabler.
  1. Port of Hamburg: Europe’s second-largest port is keeping carrier trucks and ships productive around the clock. By fusing facility, weather, and traffic conditions with vehicle availability and shipment schedules, the Port increased container handling capacity by 178% without expanding its physical space.
  1. Haier Asia: This top-ranking multinational consumer electronics and home appliances company decided to disrupt itself before someone else did. The company used a two-prong approach to digital transformation to create a service-based model to seize the potential of changing consumer behaviors and accelerate product development. 
  1. Uber: This startup darling is more than just a taxi service. It is transforming how urban logistics operates through a technology trifecta: Big Data, cloud, and mobile.
  1. American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO): Even nonprofits can benefit from digital transformation. ASCO is transforming care for cancer patients worldwide by consolidating patient information with its CancerLinQ. By unlocking knowledge and value from the 97% of cancer patients who are not involved in clinical trials, healthcare providers can drive better, more data-driven decision making and outcomes.

It’s time to take action 

During the SAP Executive Technology Summit at SAP TechEd on October 19–20, an elite group of CIOs, CTOs, and corporate executives will gather to discuss the challenges of digital transformation and how they can solve them. With the freedom of open, candid, and interactive discussions led by SAP Board Members and senior technology leadership, delegates will exchange ideas on how to get on the right path while leveraging their existing technology infrastructure.

Stay tuned for exclusive insights from this invitation-only event in our next blog!
Scott Feldman is Global Head of the SAP HANA Customer Community at SAP. Connect with him on Twitter @sfeldman0.

Puneet Suppal drives Solution Strategy and Adoption (Customer Innovation & IoT) at SAP Labs. Connect with him on Twitter @puneetsuppal.

 

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Scott Feldman and Puneet Suppal

About Scott Feldman and Puneet Suppal

Scott Feldman is the Head of SAP HANA International Customer Community. Puneet Suppal is the Customer Co-Innovation & Solution Adoption Executive at SAP.

Why Strategic Plans Need Multiple Futures

By Dan Wellers, Kai Goerlich, and Stephanie Overby , Kai Goerlich and Stephanie Overby

When members of Lowe’s Innovation Labs first began talking with the home improvement retailer’s senior executives about how disruptive technologies would affect the future, the presentations were well received but nothing stuck.

“We’d give a really great presentation and everyone would say, ‘Great job,’ but nothing would really happen,” says Amanda Manna, head of narratives and partnerships for the lab.

The team realized that it needed to ditch the PowerPoints and try something radical. The team’s leader, Kyle Nel, is a behavioral scientist by training. He knows people are wired to receive new information best through stories. Sharing far-future concepts through narrative, he surmised, could unlock hidden potential to drive meaningful change.

So Nel hired science fiction writers to pen the future in comic book format, with characters and a narrative arc revealed pane by pane.

The first storyline, written several years before Oculus Rift became a household name, told the tale of a couple envisioning their kitchen renovation using virtual reality headsets. The comic might have been fun and fanciful, but its intent was deadly serious. It was a vision of a future in which Lowe’s might solve one of its long-standing struggles: the approximately US$70 billion left on the table when people are unable to start a home improvement project because they can’t envision what it will look like.

When the lab presented leaders with the first comic, “it was like a light bulb went on,” says Manna. “Not only did they immediately understand the value of the concept, they were convinced that if we didn’t build it, someone else would.”

Today, Lowe’s customers in select stores can use the HoloRoom How To virtual reality tool to learn basic DIY skills in an interactive and immersive environment.

Other comics followed and were greeted with similar enthusiasm—and investment, where possible. One tells the story of robots that help customers navigate stores. That comic spawned the LoweBot, which roamed the aisles of several Lowe’s stores during a pilot program in California and is being evaluated to determine next steps.

And the comic about tools that can be 3D-printed in space? Last year, Lowe’s partnered with Made in Space, which specializes in making 3D printers that can operate in zero gravity, to install the first commercial 3D printer in the International Space Station, where it was used to make tools and parts for astronauts.

The comics are the result of sending writers out on an open-ended assignment, armed with trends, market research, and other input, to envision what home improvement planning might look like in the future or what the experience of shopping will be in 10 years. The writers come back with several potential story ideas in a given area and work collaboratively with lab team members to refine it over time.

The process of working with writers and business partners to develop the comics helps the future strategy team at Lowe’s, working under chief development officer Richard D. Maltsbarger, to inhabit that future. They can imagine how it might play out, what obstacles might surface, and what steps the company would need to take to bring that future to life.

Once the final vision hits the page, the lab team can clearly envision how to work backward to enable the innovation. Importantly, the narrative is shared not only within the company but also out in the world. It serves as a kind of “bat signal” to potential technology partners with capabilities that might be required to make it happen, says Manna. “It’s all part of our strategy for staking a claim in the future.”

Planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future.

Companies like Lowe’s are realizing that standard ways of planning for the future won’t get them where they need to go. The problem with traditional strategic planning is that the approach, which dates back to the 1950s and has remained largely unchanged since then, is based on the company’s existing mission, resources, core competencies, and competitors.

Yet the future rarely looks like the past. What’s more, digital technology is now driving change at exponential rates. Companies must be able to analyze and assess the potential impacts of the many variables at play, determine the possible futures they want to pursue, and develop the agility to pivot as conditions change along the way.

This is why planning must become completely oriented toward—and sourced from—the future, rather than from the past or the present. “Every winning strategy is based on a compelling insight, but most strategic planning originates in today’s marketplace, which means the resulting plans are constrained to incremental innovation,” says Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. “Most corporate strategists and CEOs are just inching their way to the future.” (Read more from Bob Johansen in the Thinkers story, “Fear Factor.”)

Inching forward won’t cut it anymore. Half of the S&P 500 organizations will be replaced over the next decade, according to research company Innosight. The reason? They can’t see the portfolio of possible futures, they can’t act on them, or both. Indeed, when SAP conducts future planning workshops with clients, we find that they usually struggle to look beyond current models and assumptions and lack clear ideas about how to work toward radically different futures.

Companies that want to increase their chances of long-term survival are incorporating three steps: envisioning, planning for, and executing on possible futures. And doing so all while the actual future is unfolding in expected and unexpected ways.

Those that pull it off are rewarded. A 2017 benchmarking report from the Strategic Foresight Research Network (SFRN) revealed that vigilant companies (those with the most mature processes for identifying, interpreting, and responding to factors that induce change) achieved 200% greater market capitalization growth and 33% higher profitability than the average, while the least mature companies experienced negative market-cap growth and had 44% lower profitability.

Looking Outside the Margins

“Most organizations lack sufficient capacity to detect, interpret, and act on the critically important but weak and ambiguous signals of fresh threats or new opportunities that emerge on the periphery of their usual business environment,” write George S. Day and Paul J. H. Schoemaker in their book Peripheral Vision.

But that’s exactly where effective future planning begins: examining what is happening outside the margins of day-to-day business as usual in order to peer into the future.

Business leaders who take this approach understand that despite the uncertainties of the future there are drivers of change that can be identified and studied and actions that can be taken to better prepare for—and influence—how events unfold.

That starts with developing foresight, typically a decade out. Ten years, most future planners agree, is the sweet spot. “It is far enough out that it gives you a bit more latitude to come up with a broader way to the future, allowing for disruption and innovation,” says Brian David Johnson, former chief futurist for Intel and current futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “But you can still see the light from it.”

The process involves gathering information about the factors and forces—technological, business, sociological, and industry or ecosystem trends—that are effecting change to envision a range of potential impacts.

Seeing New Worlds

Intel, for example, looks beyond its own industry boundaries to envision possible future developments in adjacent businesses in the larger ecosystem it operates in. In 2008, the Intel Labs team, led by anthropologist Genevieve Bell, determined that the introduction of flexible glass displays would open up a whole new category of foldable consumer electronic devices.

To take advantage of that advance, Intel would need to be able to make silicon small enough to fit into some imagined device of the future. By the time glass manufacturer Corning unveiled its ultra-slim, flexible glass surface for mobile devices, laptops, televisions, and other displays of the future in 2012, Intel had already created design prototypes and kicked its development into higher gear. “Because we had done the future casting, we were already imagining how people might use flexible glass to create consumer devices,” says Johnson.

Because future planning relies so heavily on the quality of the input it receives, bringing in experts can elevate the practice. They can come from inside an organization, but the most influential insight may come from the outside and span a wide range of disciplines, says Steve Brown, a futurist, consultant, and CEO of BaldFuturist.com who worked for Intel Labs from 2007 to 2016.

Companies may look to sociologists or behaviorists who have insight into the needs and wants of people and how that influences their actions. Some organizations bring in an applied futurist, skilled at scanning many different forces and factors likely to coalesce in important ways (see Do You Need a Futurist?).

Do You Need a Futurist?

Most organizations need an outsider to help envision their future. Futurists are good at looking beyond the big picture to the biggest picture.

Business leaders who want to be better prepared for an uncertain and disruptive future will build future planning as a strategic capability into their organizations and create an organizational culture that embraces the approach. But working with credible futurists, at least in the beginning, can jump-start the process.

“The present can be so noisy and business leaders are so close to it that it’s helpful to provide a fresh outside-in point of view,” says veteran futurist Bob Johansen.

To put it simply, futurists like Johansen are good at connecting dots—lots of them. They look beyond the boundaries of a single company or even an industry, incorporating into their work social science, technical research, cultural movements, economic data, trends, and the input of other experts.

They can also factor in the cultural history of the specific company with whom they’re working, says Brian David Johnson, futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination. “These large corporations have processes and procedures in place—typically for good reasons,” Johnson explains. “But all of those reasons have everything to do with the past and nothing to do with the future. Looking at that is important so you can understand the inertia that you need to overcome.”

One thing the best futurists will say they can’t do: predict the future. That’s not the point. “The future punishes certainty,” Johansen says, “but it rewards clarity.” The methods futurists employ are designed to trigger discussions and considerations of possibilities corporate leaders might not otherwise consider.

You don’t even necessarily have to buy into all the foresight that results, says Johansen. Many leaders don’t. “Every forecast is debatable,” Johansen says. “Foresight is a way to provoke insight, even if you don’t believe it. The value is in letting yourself be provoked.”

External expert input serves several purposes. It brings everyone up to a common level of knowledge. It can stimulate and shift the thinking of participants by introducing them to new information or ideas. And it can challenge the status quo by illustrating how people and organizations in different sectors are harnessing emerging trends.

The goal is not to come up with one definitive future but multiple possibilities—positive and negative—along with a list of the likely obstacles or accelerants that could surface on the road ahead. The result: increased clarity—rather than certainty—in the face of the unknown that enables business decision makers to execute and refine business plans and strategy over time.

Plotting the Steps Along the Way

Coming up with potential trends is an important first step in futuring, but even more critical is figuring out what steps need to be taken along the way: eight years from now, four years from now, two years from now, and now. Considerations include technologies to develop, infrastructure to deploy, talent to hire, partnerships to forge, and acquisitions to make. Without this vital step, says Brown, everybody goes back to their day jobs and the new thinking generated by future planning is wasted. To work, the future steps must be tangible, concrete, and actionable.

Organizations must build a roadmap for the desired future state that anticipates both developments and detours, complete with signals that will let them know if they’re headed in the right direction. Brown works with corporate leaders to set indicator flags to look out for on the way to the anticipated future. “If we see these flagged events occurring in the ecosystem, they help to confirm the strength of our hypothesis that a particular imagined future is likely to occur,” he explains.

For example, one of Brown’s clients envisioned two potential futures: one in which gestural interfaces took hold and another in which voice control dominated. The team set a flag to look out for early examples of the interfaces that emerged in areas such as home appliances and automobiles. “Once you saw not just Amazon Echo but also Google Home and other copycat speakers, it would increase your confidence that you were moving more towards a voice-first era rather than a gesture-first era,” Brown says. “It doesn’t mean that gesture won’t happen, but it’s less likely to be the predominant modality for communication.”

How to Keep Experiments from Being Stifled

Once organizations have a vision for the future, making it a reality requires testing ideas in the marketplace and then scaling them across the enterprise. “There’s a huge change piece involved,”
says Frank Diana, futurist and global consultant with Tata Consultancy Services, “and that’s the place where most
businesses will fall down.”

Many large firms have forgotten what it’s like to experiment in several new markets on a small scale to determine what will stick and what won’t, says René Rohrbeck, professor of strategy at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences. Companies must be able to fail quickly, bring the lessons learned back in, adapt, and try again.

Lowe’s increases its chances of success by creating master narratives across a number of different areas at once, such as robotics, mixed-reality tools, on-demand manufacturing, sustainability, and startup acceleration. The lab maps components of each by expected timelines: short, medium, and long term. “From there, we’ll try to build as many of them as quickly as we can,” says Manna. “And we’re always looking for that next suite of things that we should be working on.” Along the way certain innovations, like the HoloRoom How-To, become developed enough to integrate into the larger business as part of the core strategy.

One way Lowe’s accelerates the process of deciding what is ready to scale is by being open about its nascent plans with the world. “In the past, Lowe’s would never talk about projects that weren’t at scale,” says Manna. Now the company is sharing its future plans with the media and, as a result, attracting partners that can jump-start their realization.

Seeing a Lowe’s comic about employee exoskeletons, for example, led Virginia Tech engineering professor Alan Asbeck to the retailer. He helped develop a prototype for a three-month pilot with stock employees at a Christiansburg, Virginia, store.

The high-tech suit makes it easier to move heavy objects. Employees trying out the suits are also fitted with an EEG headset that the lab incorporates into all its pilots to gauge unstated, subconscious reactions. That direct feedback on the user experience helps the company refine its innovations over time.

Make the Future Part of the Culture

Regardless of whether all the elements of its master narratives come to pass, Lowe’s has already accomplished something important: It has embedded future thinking into the culture of the company.

Companies like Lowe’s constantly scan the environment for meaningful economic, technology, and cultural changes that could impact its future assessments and plans. “They can regularly draw on future planning to answer challenges,” says Rohrbeck. “This intensive, ongoing, agile strategizing is only possible because they’ve done their homework up front and they keep it updated.”

It’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen in the future, but companies can help to shape it, says Manna of Lowe’s. “It’s really about painting a picture of a preferred future state that we can try to achieve while being flexible and capable of change as we learn things along the way.” D!


About the Authors

Dan Wellers is Global Lead, Digital Futures, at SAP.

Kai Goerlich is Chief Futurist at SAP’s Innovation Center Network.

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based business and technology journalist.


Read more thought provoking articles in the latest issue of the Digitalist Magazine, Executive Quarterly.

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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu

About Stephanie Overby

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The Human Factor In An AI Future

Dan Wellers and Kai Goerlich

As artificial intelligence becomes more sophisticated and its ability to perform human tasks accelerates exponentially, we’re finally seeing some attempts to wrestle with what that means, not just for business, but for humanity as a whole.

From the first stone ax to the printing press to the latest ERP solution, technology that reduces or even eliminates physical and mental effort is as old as the human race itself. However, that doesn’t make each step forward any less uncomfortable for the people whose work is directly affected – and the rise of AI is qualitatively different from past developments.

Until now, we developed technology to handle specific routine tasks. A human needed to break down complex processes into their component tasks, determine how to automate each of those tasks, and finally create and refine the automation process. AI is different. Because AI can evaluate, select, act, and learn from its actions, it can be independent and self-sustaining.

Some people, like investor/inventor Elon Musk and Alibaba founder and chairman Jack Ma, are focusing intently on how AI will impact the labor market. It’s going to do far more than eliminate repetitive manual jobs like warehouse picking. Any job that involves routine problem-solving within existing structures, processes, and knowledge is ripe for handing over to a machine. Indeed, jobs like customer service, travel planning, medical diagnostics, stock trading, real estate, and even clothing design are already increasingly automated.

As for more complex problem-solving, we used to think it would take computers decades or even centuries to catch up to the nimble human mind, but we underestimated the exponential explosion of deep learning. IBM’s Watson trounced past Jeopardy champions in 2011 – and just last year, Google’s DeepMind AI beat the reigning European champion at Go, a game once thought too complex for even the most sophisticated computer.

Where does AI leave human?

This raises an urgent question for the future: How do human beings maintain our economic value in a world in which AI will keep getting better than us at more and more things?

The concept of the technological singularity – the point at which machines attain superhuman intelligence and permanently outpace the human mind – is based on the idea that human thinking can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with technology. However, the limits of human performance have yet to be found. It’s possible that people are only at risk of lagging behind machines because nothing has forced us to test ourselves at scale.

Other than a handful of notable individual thinkers, scientists, and artists, most of humanity has met survival-level needs through mostly repetitive tasks. Most people don’t have the time or energy for higher-level activities. But as the human race faces the unique challenge of imminent obsolescence, we need to think of those activities not as luxuries, but as necessities. As technology replaces our traditional economic value, the economic system may stop attaching value to us entirely unless we determine the unique value humanity offers – and what we can and must do to cultivate the uniquely human skills that deliver that value.

Honing the human advantage

As a species, humans are driven to push past boundaries, to try new things, to build something worthwhile, and to make a difference. We have strong instincts to explore and enjoy novelty and risk – but according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, these instincts crumble if we don’t cultivate them.

AI is brilliant at automating routine knowledge work and generating new insights from existing data. What it can’t do is deduce the existence, or even the possibility, of information it isn’t already aware of. It can’t imagine radical new products and business models. Or ask previously unconceptualized questions. Or envision unimagined opportunities and achievements. AI doesn’t even have common sense! As theoretical physicist Michio Kaku says, a robot doesn’t know that water is wet or that strings can pull but not push. Nor can robots engage in what Kaku calls “intellectual capitalism” – activities that involve creativity, imagination, leadership, analysis, humor, and original thought.

At the moment, though, we don’t generally value these so-called “soft skills” enough to prioritize them. We expect people to develop their competency in emotional intelligence, cross-cultural awareness, curiosity, critical thinking, and persistence organically, as if these skills simply emerge on their own given enough time. But there’s nothing soft about these skills, and we can’t afford to leave them to chance.

Lessons in being human

To stay ahead of AI in an increasingly automated world, we need to start cultivating our most human abilities on a societal level – and to do so not just as soon as possible, but as early as possible.

Singularity University chairman Peter Diamandis, for example, advocates revamping the elementary school curriculum to nurture the critical skills of passion, curiosity, imagination, critical thinking, and persistence. He envisions a curriculum that, among other things, teaches kids to communicate, ask questions, solve problems with creativity, empathy, and ethics, and accept failure as an opportunity to try again. These concepts aren’t necessarily new – Waldorf and Montessori schools have been encouraging similar approaches for decades – but increasing automation and digitization make them newly relevant and urgent.

The Mastery Transcript Consortium is approaching the same problem from the opposite side, by starting with outcomes. This organization is pushing to redesign the secondary school transcript to better reflect whether and how high school students are acquiring the necessary combination of creative, critical, and analytical abilities. By measuring student achievement in a more nuanced way than through letter grades and test scores, the consortium’s approach would inherently require schools to reverse-engineer their curricula to emphasize those abilities.

Most critically, this isn’t simply a concern of high-tuition private schools and “good school districts” intended to create tomorrow’s executives and high-level knowledge workers. One critical aspect of the challenge we face is the assumption that the vast majority of people are inevitably destined for lives that don’t require creativity or critical thinking – that either they will somehow be able to thrive anyway or their inability to thrive isn’t a cause for concern. In the era of AI, no one will be able to thrive without these abilities, which means that everyone will need help acquiring them. For humanitarian, political, and economic reasons, we cannot just write off a large percentage of the population as disposable.

In the end, anything an AI does has to fit into a human-centered value system that takes our unique human abilities into account. Why would we want to give up our humanity in favor of letting machines determine whether or not an action or idea is valuable? Instead, while we let artificial intelligence get better at being what it is, we need to get better at being human. That’s how we’ll keep coming up with groundbreaking new ideas like jazz music, graphic novels, self-driving cars, blockchain, machine learning – and AI itself.

Read the executive brief Human Skills for the Digital Future.

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Dan Wellers

About Dan Wellers

Dan Wellers is founder and leader of Digital Futures at SAP, a strategic insights and thought leadership discipline that explores how digital technologies drive exponential change in business and society.

Kai Goerlich

About Kai Goerlich

Kai Goerlich is the Chief Futurist at SAP Innovation Center network His specialties include Competitive Intelligence, Market Intelligence, Corporate Foresight, Trends, Futuring and ideation.

Share your thoughts with Kai on Twitter @KaiGoe.heif Futu