“Noooo! Get out of his way, you’ll mess up his plan.” That is not the refrain of a planner, a wedding planner or any kind of planner. It is what my wife exclaims when someone obstructs the path of “Hoovie”.
Hoovie is the name my children christened our Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner. Hoovie does a pretty good job roaming around our house vacuuming up dust and dirt, but a human still does a better job. Despite huge advances in robot technology, they still struggle with many of the human tasks we take for granted. Let’s take for example Hoovie’s challenge, where he is executing his programme vacuuming a room and something or somebody (my kids) obstructs his way. To you or I, this seems innocuous, right? If something obstructed our way, we would just move it or move around it. It turns out this is not so easy for a robot. They still have trouble figuring out where they are in a space. One way robots (ahem) navigate this challenge is by making a map of where they are and then keep track of where they are on that map.
From a robots point of view, it “sees” a chair (or my son) in its way. Even though the chair or my sons can move or be moved, the robot does not know this and thus cannot use them as anchors. If it finds itself closer to the chair than it was when it created “the map of the territory”, it doesn’t know if the chair was moved, it was moved, or both. When there are movements in the territory, the robot has to constantly redraw its map. Building a map and figuring out where it is on that map is called simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM). While it isn’t one of the greatest problems for a roboticist, it is just another on a long list of challenges.
SLAM (simultaneous localisation and mapping) provides a great analogy for this week’s Thursday Thought. It highlights how AI is better than humans at operating in steady and stable environments, with static, well-defined rules and linear expectations. To me, this echoes how many leaders run organisations, assessing strategy outcomes, inputs and outputs against results they would expect in a steady and stable business environment, where both problem and challenge are known. We know that is no longer the case but we are dealing with the hangover of management practices and styles from the industrial revolution. This mechanical state of mind is far from our true humanistic one.
We need to rediscover our heritage as human beings. Humans are much better than robots at handling surprises, navigating uncharted territory and operating in environments with incomplete information if any at all. However, we allowed this capability to atrophy in past 75 years. We have allowed our “change muscles” to atrophy and now it is we that have started to behave like the robots when we encounter unexpected changes in our environments.
In a business environment in perpetual flux, we must learn how to unlearn, relearn and learn anew in permanence. Unlike robots, we have the ability to rapidly remap our mental models to adapt to big shifts in any environment. Doing so is often accompanied by concerns of what others will think, fear or failure or the worry that we may encounter setbacks and shame. Robots do not feel that, that is a human frailty. To recalibrate to relentless changes in our world, we must not cling too rigidly to our business models, nor our mental models. As I say in my book ‘Undisruptable’, “To change business models, we first need to change mental models. To change what we do, we must change how we think.”
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