Photo: TED

4 Things Your Company Must Do To Make “Amazing” Meaningful Again

As TED proclaims “The Age of Amazement,” how can business walk the talk(s)?

Are we indeed entering an “Age of Amazement,” as the theme of this year’s TED conference taking place two weeks ago in Vancouver, suggested? When it comes to business, one could argue that is an exaggeration, if not an outright illusion, at least if you take the term amazement at face value. Clearly, marketers have inflated the use of amazement. Everything is amazing these days, from the hottest start-up sensation, to “AI can read your thoughts” headlines, to the latest from Elon Musk.

On the other hand, the public’s perception of business is not so amazing at present and appears more aligned with amazement’s original meaning: bewilderment. Scandal upon scandal has shattered the public’s trust, and many of us are deeply disturbed by an apparent erosion of ethics in the corporate world. This is by no means a new phenomenon, but what feels different now is the terrible realization that the digital economy may have turned all of us into products.

Long-held beliefs and fundamental business truths suddenly seem questionable, while there is no new playbook yet besides the start-up doctrines coming out of Silicon Valley. And not even the erstwhile disruptors (Amazon, Tesla, Facebook, Uber, etc.) appear invincible anymore. Old systems are collapsing, and existing narratives feel tired, while we are desperately longing for new ones. Disruption is no longer merely a business term, it has become the new normal in politics, society, and beyond. Confusion is abundant, optimism scarce.

Against this background, TED remains a reliable old friend that is both a constant stalwart of hope and stubbornly optimistic. Never before has TED’s work — to provide a forum for world-changing ideas, present them as gripping personal stories, and distribute them to a wide audience — felt so nostalgic and yet so relevant at the same time.

TED’s approach holds a lesson for business. The current crisis of legitimacy presents a huge opening for companies: to humanize their culture, win (back) customers’ trust and not the least their hearts, craft and role-model a positive vision of how we want to work and live in the future, and shape a new narrative.

In other words, they must fill “amazing” with meaning again. Here are four things companies can do immediately:

1. Be a white knight and a white box on data

As companies expect their employees to bring their full selves to work, they should both lead by example and reveal their true colors. Character may form in the dark, but in business, it shows in the broad daylight of transparency, especially with regards to privacy. The European data and privacy protection laws (GDPR) which take effect on May 25 may only pertain to data of European individuals, but they will inevitably raise the standards for privacy-friendly corporate behavior worldwide, from the right to be forgotten to perhaps even a right to be ignored. Facebook has already pledged to apply the GDPR privacy controls to all of its users.

As Europe is leading on privacy, so should you. Refrain from what Mark Rolston, chief creative officer of Argo Design, calls “dark interactions,” switch to an opt-in and consent-based culture, respect your customers’ data ownership, and over-deliver on transparency regarding your use of their personal data. Remember: what you don’t tell your customers today, they will hold against you tomorrow.

Consider adding a “Why Me?” button (as suggested for Facebook), or an “AI Inside” feature that lets your customers understand — in layman’s terms — which AI applications are performed on their data, and why this adds value to them (and if it doesn’t, you might reconsider doing it in the first place). With AI often accused of being a black box, your brand can serve as a white box concierge, providing guidance and stewardship even beyond your own industry and taking the opacity out of it. If you need guidance yourself, refer to IEEE’s excellent guidelines for ethically aligned design.

2. Develop your talent through “life-wide learning”

In a recent survey by Korn Ferry, the majority of CEOs worldwide heralded technology as their most important asset (with the workforce not even making the top five). This seems out of touch. What has been true ever since the birth of the post-industrial firm should now arguably be any company’s top priority. If you want to remain human, you must develop talent — and yourself. With AI and automation radically altering job requirements and skill sets, we are all amateurs again, or as New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman put it, ‘we are all immigrants.’ This means all companies are now in the business of digital integration and tasked with providing their workforce with opportunities for constant development and re-skilling. They must facilitate not just lifelong learning but “lifewide learning,” to use Kenneth Mikkelsen’s term.

Take Airbus, which has given the finalists of its Dream Big internal ideation contest six months off from their regular jobs to advance their ideas with the help of coaches and tailored toolkits. There are also opportunities for new business models based on AI. Consider Pymetrics which combines machine learning, gaming, and neuroscience to eliminate the discriminatory bias of traditional recruiting. “The resume is the most biased piece of information used in the hiring process,” says CEO Frida Polli. Or Catalyte, a Baltimore-based start-up, that has created an AI-based solution for matching jobs with workers who can be upskilled. It applies predictive analytics first to identify these workers and then retrains them as software developers for client projects.

Increasingly, the new skills to be taught must include creative acumen and social technologies such as empathy, listening, imagination, storytelling, lateral thinking, and “the art of gathering” (a seminal leadership tool, as Priya Parker points out in her new book). Alibaba’s Jack Ma even went so far to call for a “love quotient.” A new sentimental education for workers is indeed in order, not just as a catalyst for enhanced performance but as a means for them to be able to reinvent themselves. Transcending the fixation on STEM education, author and entrepreneur Peter Sims contends that the “a(rt)” in STEAM is what will give us agency in an age of machines, and it is not surprising that companies are now hiring philosophers and poets.

Developing talent, especially when it comes to soft skills, must include top management. Many senior executives need to learn to give up control, to let go of old power and embrace the new power. Even the top dogs need to learn new tricks. Daimler’s CEO Dieter Zetsche, for instance, has recently begun to pen his blog posts himself, instead of delegating them to a ghostwriter, as is common practice. The very effort is the point. Zetsche is quite literally building writing muscle. The future leader is a writer: he writes to think, he writes to lead.

3. Bring fairness to the platform and sharing economy

Yoghurt company Chobani famously granted stock to all employees, as a token of gratitude for their efforts and loyalty. Similarly, grocery store Oliver’s Markets in Sonoma County isselling 43 percent of the company to employees over time. Prime Produce, a modern guild for social entrepreneurs and craftsmen in New York, enables its members to gradually become co-owners. Cooperatives such as the Finland-based Robin Hood use Blockchain technology to democratize finance and foster inclusion.

Blockchain is also the main infrastructure for start-ups such as Backfeed or Enkidu which serve as operating systems for decentralized organizations, enabling large-scale open-source collaboration while managing ownership positions and monetary rewards. Finally, so-called platform cooperatives offer worker-friendly, democratically governed alternatives to the sharing economy giants. In TED’s host city Vancouver, for example, carsharing cooperative Modo already has 19,000 members and aspires to a model of carsharing that is more inclusive.

The bottom line is this: As long as you don’t give workers a fair share of the equity they help create, any talk about empowerment or inclusion is just less-than-amazing lip service.

4. Make humanity your business

Recently, there has been a welcome surge in initiatives and communities dedicated to the rehumanization of technology and business: from the Center of Humane Technology, founded by former Google design ethicist and TED speaker Tristan Harris and other converted Silicon Valley insiders, to the Global Drucker Forum that maintains the legacy of management legend Peter Drucker, who was among the first to criticize shareholder value as too narrow. Human is the new human.

What’s clear is that in light of AI and automation revolutionizing our concepts of work, the stakes have gotten so much higher for business. Companies are one of the few remaining institutional authorities of our time, and maximizing shareholder value belies the breadth of their actual power and responsibility. When technological advances are encroaching our very humanity, being human becomes a precious good — and good business.

Protecting and nurturing our humanity is not limited to pursuing a pro-social purpose or humanitarian cause, rather, it means companies must expand our human potential while at the same honoring our very vulnerability with every interaction, every transaction, every process, every meeting, every statement, every bit of data, and every piece of code. This — and not exponential growth or technology — is the most important moonshot of our time.

And it requires humility more than bravado: “I still find the moon more amazing than the fact men have walked on it,” the writer Marty Rubin once said.

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Co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business; author of “The Business Romantic” and “The End of Winning”

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Tim Leberecht

Tim Leberecht

Co-founder and co-CEO of the House of Beautiful Business; author of “The Business Romantic” and “The End of Winning”

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