Your Ultimate Advantage in the Robotic Age

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend the FLUX 2015 conference for game changers and innovators in Helsinki. It was a very inspiring and thought provoking event, packed with insight and information. In this post, I’ll share my notes on the first of the two presentations, Marty Neumeier‘s Metaskills.

Marty Neumeier is a renowned author, designer, and business adviser. His most influential book is Zag: The Number One Strategy of High-Performance Brands, named as one the top hundred business books of all time. His new book is called Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age, and that was also the title of his presentation.

The hand created the brain

Neumeier started off with at story of the discovery of the Lascaux cave paintings. In between the great paintings, there are human hand prints stuck on the wall. Neumeier thinks that the painters were celebrating the one advantage they had in a world where they were not at the top of the food chain. The only thing that they had was what they could do with their hands.

We underestimate what the hand can do. We’re all about our brains these days. When you think about it, the brain does control the hand, but it’s the hand that created the brain. Our brains are built to be able to use hands to make things. To Neumeier, the human hand is the lever that launched technology.

Technology overpowers us

Neumeier went on describing the dramatic evolution of technology compared to the biological evolution of humans at the same time. Technology started taking off in about 1961 when the computer chip was invented.

As an example of the technological advancement Neumeier talked about Japanese humanoid robots. Researcher made them to test if they can fool people into thinking that the robots are humans. They do a pretty good job. A girl robot was in a play, sitting in a chair during the whole play. She was the principal actor. The critics commented on how good an actor she was, not knowing that she was a robot.

We’re living a paradigm shift

We’re in the middle of a paradigm shift. “This is what it’s like to be in one”, as Neumaier said. We’re moving from the old era, the industrial age, towards some new era that we don’t quite understand and don’t even have a good name for it. Neumeier calls it the robotic age. Whatever it is, we know it’s going to be different, and we don’t know what kind of skills we need to address it.

The skills that we developed for the factory age are no longer good for addressing the problems that we’ve created during the factory age. We are confused. What we’re experiencing is a clash between two eras.

Change is changing. Change is speeding up. Neumeier calls this metachange, the change to change itself.

We need metaskills

We need metaskills, skills of learning skills. We need metaskills to keep up with change. Metachange loves metaskills. People who don’t have them are going to be victims of metachange. People who have them can take advantage.

The five metaskills that we’re going to need are

  1. Feeling: emotional intelligence, not relying completely on the evidence
  2. Seeing: seeing the big picture, the long picture
  3. Dreaming: knowing how to access your imagination, imagine outcomes, products, or answers that we couldn’t even imagine before
  4. Making: design and design thinking, it is not about analysis, it is thinking with your hands
  5. Learning: learning how to learn

Learning is the opposable thumb of the other skills. Knowing how you learn best is going to be very important.

The Robot Curve

You need metaskills so that you can get ahead of the robot curve. The robot curve is the constant waterfall of innovation and obsolescence that’s always happening, and it’s happening faster and faster because of technology.

At the top of the curve, you have creative work. It is unique, it’s imaginative, it’s non-routine and autonomous. In most cases, creative work is something you decide to do.

When a certain kind of creative work becomes better understood, what do we do? We try to teach it to other people. So it becomes skill work. Most creative professionals do this. People recognize that it is good work, and it usually pays well. It is standardized. It takes talent. It is professional and directed. You have a boss or client directing the work.

When skill work becomes well understood, we turn it into rote or routine work. We try to turn it into a program, and we can outsource it. It reduces the value of the product but you can also make money with it. Every time you turn something into something lower there’s money to be made, but not for the people doing it. They are not safe either.

As soon as we can we’ll turn rote work into robotic work. It is algorithmic, it’s computerized, efficient, it’s purchased.

The waterfall is always pulling, you’re never safe because technology is going to learn your job eventually. You’ll always have to be swimming up to the top where creative work is. To do that you need metaskills. That’s the thesis of Neumeier’s book. Metaskills can help you optimize the robot curve.

Originality does not come from a process

The reason creative work is important is because it’s all about originality. Originality is the only thing that can’t be copied. People who can do original work are very valuable.

The formula for originality is knowledge multiplied by imagination. The winning scenario is having a high level of knowledge and a high level of imagination.

Neumeier criticized the idea that originality would come from a certain process. We all know how creative companies somewhere on their website display a step-by-step process they follow. Based on his experience, Neumeier claims standardized innovation processes don’t work.

If you stick to a process, you come up with something that is pretty ordinary, it’s going to disallow anything great. You close off all those phases every time you finish one. It is not possible to go back, even if you wanted.

Original things come out of the blue and don’t fit the model. Neumeier’s company does everything at once. They put themselves in positions where they are not comfortable. They invite the client into a room with many different kinds of people, strategists, researchers, designers, all attacking the problem at once. They call it swarming. It’s very messy. In a matter of a week of intensive work, amazing ideas emerge that would not have come using a standard process.

Alvin Toffler has written that the illiterate of the 21st century are not those who can’t read and write. They are those who can’t learn, unlearn and relearn. And that assertion nicely ties into the concept of metaskills as the recipe for success.