The future of work in relation to automation is a broad debate which involves the skills of economists, futurologists, politicians and gurus of innovation. Dickson Tang, consultant and expert in leadership, wisely takes a position between the apocalyptic doomsayers and the conservatives. His book Leadership for future of work. Nine ways to build career edge over robots with human creativity starts by reporting on the danger of obsolescence to which a large part of the “human” workforce will be exposed in the near future and offers a simple (too simple?) solution: concentrate on typically human characteristics and improve them. Above all: creativity.
Since this is what Tang is concerned with, more than the common worker, this book is destined to outline new forms of leadership, which in turn are called on to train, guide and inspire employees.
Human abilities which are intangible and difficult to teach, such as creativity, are our winning card, for the obvious reason that it is difficult for robots to learn them.
The starting point, they said, is a very simple statement: by 2020, according to the World Economic Forum, automation could cause the loss of about 7.1 million jobs. And according to the latest McKinsey report, about half of the current work activities in the world will be automated by 2055 – if not before. This prompts a spontaneous question: how can we ensure not being replaced by a robot? And if the future of employment requires a new management system, which is probable, what characteristics must it have? The answer to both questions is the same: creativity as a key element that distinguishes humans from robots in the workplace. Because human abilities which are intangible and difficult to teach, such as creativity, are our winning card, for the obvious reason that it is difficult for robots to learn them.
With the fresh schematic language of motivational books and manuals on professional skills – this book is in fact both things – Tang thus outlines a series of characteristics that help to summarise and focus on useful qualities. Mindset, infrastructure and ideas are the macrocategories: The three aspects of creative leadership. The advice and tricks for training these abilities are likewise simple.
In the case of mindset, it is a question of learning to think differently, in a fluid way, exploring outside your own comfort zone to embrace uncertainty and deal fearlessly with difficult concepts such as ambiguity and complexity. Besides maintaining an open attitude (more specifically the 3 Cs of cooperation, connectivity and curiosity”), which is able to receive external input effectively, even from the most unusual situations.
The term “infrastructure” is taken to mean a baggage of skills: one’s own “toolbox”, we could say. And it is necessary to develop the both the personal and shared baggage in order to be able to field common work approaches and methods.
As regards the ideas, the invitation is instead to develop and utilise a series of instruments of divergent thinking (to produce ideas very quickly) and convergent thinking (to assess and implement ideas likewise quickly) and, above all, to consider creativity and ideas themselves actually as goods, or rather as the currency of the future.
However, Tang's approach also involves a risk since concentrating only on creativity risks diminishing the importance of other factors, such as a high level of technical specialisation and teamwork.
Basically, robots, the bugbear used as a starting point in this manual, are not so extensively present on a closer look. The basic purpose of the book is to report the need to accompany the workforce of the future through a new change in paradigm, at the centre of which it is necessary to place lively thinking and mental openness which have been utilised very limitedly so far in most professions. On some occasions they have even been obstructed. And this is because it is unlikely for the leaders to be able to get the best from this type of slightly unorthodox skills. For Tang this must change, also because, to use his words, “only the paranoid survive” and the real risk is that of becoming a professional outcast.
However, Tang's approach also involves a risk: concentrating only on creativity risks diminishing the importance of other factors, such as a high level of technical specialisation, which at least for a few decades will still be fundamental and in very high demand, but perhaps at least less catchy.
And then it is indispensable to give the proper importance to the collective dimension. Although in Tang’s book teamwork is dealt with considerately, the emphasis is in fact always on leadership skills. According to Linda Hill, the author of Collective Genius: «Many of us associate innovation with an Einstein having an “Ah!” moment. But we all know that this is a myth. Innovation does not come from the solitary genius, but from genius». And this is the aspect that, also in regard to Tang’s work, is important to focus on clearly. To quote Hill again: the task of the leaders «is to create the space in which flashes of genius of everyone can first be liberated, then collected and transformed into works of collective genius».