Welcome to The Iteration Era

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I’ve previously called this time in business history “The Time Management Era” and “The Career Training Era,” both of which seem relevant. Here’s a new idea: The Iteration Era.

You may have seen this link going around social media: Elon Musk arguing that the rise of artificial intelligence will make life meaningless. Not sure how this is breaking news. See, many people connect their self-worth to work. If we get to a place of 70–90 percent automation, including white collar jobs, that essentially means there are no jobs for people. Where does self-worth and purpose emanate from, then? Do we all become artisans or farmers? These are heady questions, but mostly what people do is bury their heads in the sand and talk about how relevant they are and thus could never get automated. This is why you keep seeing people define their business as “a relationship business.” That feels to them to be automation-proof. P.S.: It’s not.

As The New Yorker once said, the coming rise of AI is like taking the Industrial Revolution and squeezing it into the life span of a beagle. That’s a bit terrifying. You already saw what happened with social media and digital. Those things got to scale rapidly, and executives had no clue what to do with them. CMOs stuck to their “money plays.” Most brands had no idea how to monetize digitally. A lot of chest-pounding and head-burying resulted.

As work changes, we need to change. So isn’t it time for An Iteration Era of experimenting?

Now we’re at a spot where rubber is having consensual sex with the road. Things are changing — and fast. Economic realities are drastically shifted. If you conceive a child tonight, that child has no clear career arc unless he/she has a trust fund. In such a world, whether you want to call it VUCA or whatever else, shouldn’t the focus be on iteration?

A micro-example on iteration

Probably the “hottest” social media deal of the last 1–2 years is Snap, right? You know one thing users love about Snap? They don’t put out press releases when they launch new features. You need to dig around in the app and figure out what’s going on. People seem to really like this. They can be curious. Iteration can abound. What happens if I hold this down or do this other thing? The “customer experience” on this deal has been really good for Snap; it’s engendered a loyal following. I think that broadly reflects how people want to deal with tech: they want to go through iteration and see how it works for them, not follow the advice of the company that created it.

A macro-example on iteration

From UVA’s Darden Business School:

Just as in the hunter-gatherer days, the most vital skill for finding meaningful work and building a meaningful life in the Smart Machine Age will be knowing how to iteratively learn — knowing how to go into new situations and learn by trial and error. Iterative learning is not foreign to us. Trial and error is how we learned as young children. It is how, for example, many of us learned to ride a bicycle. We started with training wheels to avoid taking big personal risks. We learned by doing and adapting to the results.

This UVA article actually claims that iteration — or iterative learning — will be the №1 job skill of the future. Easy to see how that might be true.

The first problem: “Soft skills”

I thought about titling this post something about curiosity. I’ve written about that before and believe deeply in it. If work is changing all the time, who cares about a bullet point list of skills? (That’s how most companies still hire.) What you need are curious people who can adapt. (A synonym would be “iteration.”) Instead, we over-value competence and pre-existing skills. Seven months later, executives screech that a new business model is needed. Now you have a team assembled for Biz Model A but you’re chasing Biz Model B. That’s like recruiting for baseball and now playing soccer. It doesn’t help the company.

I couldn’t use “curiosity” in the title, though. Why? Because that’s viewed to many as a “soft skill.” Even though pretty much all of work is driven by these supposed soft skills, we view them negatively — often as buzzwords. So that’s the first problem with the Iteration Era. If you’re talking about needing curious, experimental people and execs are bellowing back that they need to “see the numbers,” well, you’re kinda screwed until that chasm can be crossed.

The second problem: Ignorance

I am not a Trump fan. Didn’t vote for him, etc. But here’s something that grinds my gears: when you meet someone who rants and raves about Trump, but then also tells you how great their iPhone is? Or some other software suite/”productivity hack” they use? This is a person that has no idea how the different elements of a society fit together. Trump won, in large part, because he connected with disconnected voters. Why are people disconnected? Because they lost jobs. Why did they lose jobs? Some might argue “immigrants.” The real answer is “technology.” Technology is coming for all of us. That’s the stuff at the top of this post.

Our common response is ignorance or avoidance. That’s psychologically logical, as it’s less painful. A better response would be iteration. Experiment with new approaches to work. How could humans and robots work together? What political regulations do we need? Tax robots? Iterate. Experiment. Look for solutions. Avoiding these topics just means these topics get here faster and in more overwhelming ways. That doesn’t help anyone.

The third problem: Hair-trigger managers

Managers often want to see numbers and productivity, which is again logical. They fear their ass is on the line if those elements don’t show up. This creates a lot of “hair trigger,” i.e. “sense of urgency,” style management. It’s nearly impossible to practice iteration in such a context. There’s no time. Everything is needed now now now. The iteration muscles in our brain have faded. We don’t get curious, think, and experiment — which is what we should do. Most of us go nose to the grindstone, try to please our bosses, pound our chests about relevance, avoid the big issues, and hope for a nice bonus.

That’s not working. It hasn’t worked for decades. If anything, it’s exacerbated the gap between top, middle, and bottom.

My bigger point is this: if everything is volatile and uncertain right now, and it seems to be more so in the future? We need to be thinking differently. We need to be iterating. Curiosity, soft skills be damned, does need to rule the day. Experimentation and different approaches to things need to rise up. We need to welcome in The Iteration Era. It might be our best bet at creating a future that we can mostly tolerate.

What else would you add on iteration, and/or how businesses limit it?

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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