A Lasting Competitive Advantage: Innovation + Creativity

by Jeffrey Phillips

I wrote recently about my last trip to Dubai, and the impact it had on me. Dubai is unusual because it combines a number of factors – an energetic leadership, a country and region hungry for growth and transformation, a significant investment pool, and a real “can do” spirit. Clearly things are changing quickly there, and everywhere. During the conference where I spoke we had several other speakers who were futurists, including Matthew May. He and others talked about what they believe is about to unfold as we move ever more quickly into the future.

Pause to acknowledge Daniel Pink

I’d like to pause here and tip my hat to Daniel Pink, who wrote a really good book that is becoming ever more prescient.  Daniel Pink wrote a book entitled A Whole New Mind in 2005, and at the time the book had a nice reception. His key points in that book were that automation would increase, replacing repetitive labor.  Anything that can be reduced to an algorithm will be described, defined and encoded. If it can be automated, it will be automated. His further argument was that we needed to be focused on training people in skills that can’t be reduced to algorithms. Dan’s book, published in 2005, deserves a re-read at this time, 12 years later, because a lot that he talked about is happening. People are being replaced by algorithms, machines and artificial intelligence.

Where automation and AI are taking hold… 

McDonalds, that trusted first employer of many a teenager, is testing automation and robots to take orders, make food and complete orders. It’s possible within a few years that many McDonalds restaurants will be fully automated, finally achieving the original McDonalds brothers goal of speedy, efficient service. Check out the movie “The Founder” to see how choreographed the original McDonalds were, and think about how those patterns and repetitive activities can be reduced to automation, machines and AI.

While I was in Dubai I was speaking with an executive of a firm that reviewed intellectual property. 20 years ago the firm had hundreds of US lawyers on staff, but shifted these jobs to a large Indian location where hundreds of Indian engineers and lawyers reviewed intellectual property claims and patents. His belief was that within 5 years algorithms and machine learning would mean that he would not need many, if any, humans to review patents.

Wall Street is under attack as well from automation and machine learning.  Already there are stock funds managed almost exclusively by algorithms and machine learning, and a significant portion of stock trading is already done by software. Machines can recognize patterns and act far more quickly than humans can – so you can imagine that a significant amount of trading and money management will be automated in relatively short order.

What does that leave for humans?

As automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics grow in capability, humans doing simple, repetitive jobs will be crowded out.  Robots are much more expensive initially but don’t strike, don’t get sick and do things exactly the way they are programmed. They don’t get overtime. So what’s left for humans?  Perhaps this will be a golden age – where increasingly we are removed from the drudgery of manual labor and repetitive jobs and are finally freed up to explore the unlimited creativity that we possess but have never been able to fully harness.  There may be far more Faradays and Einsteins in our midst who can fully recognize their creative potential as we are freed from boring, mundane and repetitive tasks.

Pink suggested in his book that the “right brained” people would rule the future. This is because machines aren’t artistic or creative – yet. We humans still possess far more creativity and the ability to assimilate and create in ways that can’t be reduced to an algorithm. We must take advantage of these gifts and differences.

But that doesn’t mean that engineers, mathmeticians and scientists are doomed.  Someone will be needed to dream up the next AI, investigate black holes, explore space and perhaps discover how to travel at the speed of light.

What needs to change? Everything. 

All of these factors mean that our educational system needs to change, to reinforce creativity and expansive, divergent thinking. When we needed people on production lines who could do rote work, we taught in rote methods. Now and in the future we need a completely new way of thinking, that frees up and encourages creativity and innovation. But it’s not just elementary schools, high schools and colleges that must change.

Our traditional hierarchical top down management models, first organized around the military and the railroads, must change and morph as well. We don’t need to pigeonhole people into exceptionally narrow jobs, and we need to eliminate siloes and accelerate the best and most creative ideas to market as quickly as possible. I write this on a day when Ford Motor fired its CEO, even after record breaking sales, because the firm isn’t making enough money and its stock price is tanking.  Ford and the automotive manufacturers must shift their thinking from building cars to financing vehicles to providing transportation.

Will we leverage the power and performance of AI and machine learning and automation and robots to free people up to create even more incredible ideas and products – to add value where AI and robots can’t? Will we prepare our children to compete in a world where creativity and divergent thinking become more important than rote memorization? Can we rethink our business structures and processes to embrace more divergence and creativity?

Innovation and creativity are the lasting competitive advantage, for individuals, for cultures and for businesses. The sooner we realize that and act on it, the better off we all are.

image credit: bigstockphoto.com

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Jeffrey Phillips is a senior leader at OVO Innovation. OVO works with large distributed organizations to build innovation teams, processes, and capabilities. Jeffrey is the author of Relentless Innovation and the blog Innovate on Purpose. Follow him @ovoinnovation

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