Welcome to the Digital Death Ground


aran-rees-writes-for-myhrcareers-about-the-digital-death-groundIn 1519 Hernan Cortes began a campaign that ended with the conquest of the the feared and powerful Aztecs and he did so with only five hundred men in his charge. In his choices and actions there is a lesson for anyone seeking to prosper in these times of overwhelming opposition.

It may seem strange to begin a piece of writing about digital disruption, AI and automation, the ongoing third industrial revolution that is doing to the knowledge worker what the second industrial revolution did to the factory worker, by discussing a 14th Century conquistador but we can make it stranger still. Because the principle embodied in the actions taken by Hernan Cortes trace their origins to ancient China and the world famous Sun Tzu.

After landing in what is now Mexico, ostensibly on a fact finding mission, with orders to lay the groundwork for a larger force to follow Cortes, who wished to conquer the Aztecs himself, found that his men were divided with many of them plotting to escape back to their homes in Cuba where their wives and home comforts awaited them. With his men so divided there was no hope of victory and every chance of disaster.

So Cortes sunk his ships.

Insanity? Not at all. Cortes knew that the only way to galvanise his people was to give them no choice but to fight. By placing them on Death Ground, removing any thought of a safe alternative path, he could unite them behind a single goal and be sure they would do whatever it took to achieve it. The only way back, was to move ahead.

Death Ground is a concept that we can find in The Art of War by Sun Tzu, a text dating 2000 years before the time of Cortes. Sun Tzu said that it was sometimes necessary to place your troops on Death Ground, not because you mistrust them or wish them harm, but rather that it is in these moments the human mind can take on a degree of presence, a focus on the matter in hand, that is elusive at all other times. This single mindedness can make any person a more formidable foe and, collectively, can make people unstoppable.

There are other circumstances, however, when you don’t need to place yourself on Death Ground, just realise that you are already there. Now is one of those moments and the trouble is that many of us haven’t noticed.

You can’t sail away from the future.

When you consider the third industrial revolution you would do well to imagine that you are one of Cortes’ men and that the AI represents the Aztecs. You have no ships and there is nowhere to hide. You must win. You must fight.

The first task, therefore, for all of us who’s job is to help people succeed at what they do must be to make it utterly clear to everyone that we meet that we are standing on Death Ground. Cortes’ sunk his ships. We need to scuttle any idea that there is a way around or away from this future, this war. While few will pay with blood, we will pay. This war will be painful. It will be hard. We will suffer. And if we succeed, we will have glory.

It is a natural tendency in most people to soften the blow, sweeten the pill, take the edge off of bad news. It feels good to do it. You have to stop. Do not indulge the delusions of people who think that AI and robotics won’t affect them. Do not pander to them and do not let them go on in ignorance. Rip off the bandaid. They won’t thank you for it but they will be grateful in the end.

Ever more human

Now that we realise that we are all on Death Ground, what does it mean? This isn’t a war between unmatched by essentially similar opponents. Cortes’ defeated the Aztecs by being a better military strategist, but you can’t beat a machine by being a better machine.

This should, I hope, leave one obvious conclusion in your mind. The only way to win this war against the machines is to be ever more human. You don’t beat a machine by trying to be better at what machines are best at, you beat a machine by being better at what humans are best at.

The history of work has, since the Second Industrial Revolution, been the history of making humans more like machines. The factory processes that dominated early mass manufacturing required humans to adapt to the needs of machinery. We learned from this and applied many of the same ideas to the workforce at large. Humans became parts in a large machine and the HR processes that were founded on this idea reinforced it.

Through this process we have created an army of unreliable, awkward components made of flesh, prone to illness, moodiness, dissatisfaction, and fuelled by four things that our big machines were least able to provide: autonomy, mastery, purpose, and joy. The more optimised our big machines became the less completely they were able to use the power of their human parts and, as we learned to make computers and software that could mimic these human parts, without the difficulty and expense of dealing with actual humans, we began to replace them.

It may be that your vision for the future of work is one dominated by and designed for these non-meat components. Maybe you’re OK with that. But let’s assume you’re not. What can you do besides making people aware that they are on Death Ground? You could start by telling them to watch the 2016 live action version of The Jungle Book. No kidding.

In this retelling of The Jungle Book we not only receive the treat of hearing Christopher Walken singing I Wanna be Like You (about as delightful as you imagine) but we get to follow a story of self discovery in which a young Mowgli, played by Neel Sethi, learns that he must embrace his humanity and stop trying to live life as a wolf if he is to learn to compete in the animal kingdom.

All his life Mowgli was an inferior wolf instead of becoming a fully fledged human. In many ways, doesn’t this sound a lot like humans at work? Are we trying to be machines and thus forgetting what makes us truly valuable as humans.

Look at your HR practices. Look at your people management. Look at your systems and processes and ask yourself a simple question:

Is this designed for machines or people?

–   Anything that relies overtly on metrics – machines

–   Anything that seeks to simplify the irreducibly complex – machines

–   Anything that asks a human to be less than who they are – machines

Find these practices. Rip them out. Destroy them. Because here it is you personally who find yourself on your own special Death Ground. Unless you happen to be that rare beast, a HR professional with a background in computer sciences, a future of work built with machines in mind isn’t one that will require your skills in any large part.

In Metaskills, Marty Neumeier outlines the “Five Talents of the Robotic Age” and I urge you all to read this book. He realises and explains with great insight that the future is going to be unkind to people who don’t adapt but his vision is one of some hope. But that hope dies unless we, like Mowgli, embrace what makes us human instead of trying to compete with machines.

The Five Metaskills are:

  1. Seeing
  2. Feeling
  3. Dreaming
  4. Making
  5. Learning

You’ll notice that none of these are ideas commonly associated with machines. In fact, a huge amount of energy is currently going into helping machines to literally see things but, impressive as computer vision has become, there are still times when Google’s supercomputers will mistake a cup of coffee for a bran muffin or a dog for a horse. Get this clear in your mind: the world’s most powerful computer is worse at distinguishing between common objects than a three year old human who cannot in most cases successfully add up three numbers.

These five talents are not the end of what it means to be human but they do offer us a useful starting point to begin to differentiate ourselves from what it means to be machines. By building working practices that take advantage of these skills we can create a future for work in which the AI will be subservient to us, not the other way around.

The future doesn’t have to belong to the robot. We do not have to be their slaves. But we can only win this war if we fight it on our terms, if we follow this simple plan:

–   Realise we are on Death Ground

–   Destroy the architecture of work that is built to enable machines and limit humans

–   Remember what makes us human and redouble our efforts to be ever more so


About the Author – Aran Rees is the founder and coach of Sabre Tooth Panda. He uses coaching, games, simulations and workshops to help his clients get cosy with creativity. Find out more at www.sabretoothpanda.com and follow @aranrees on Twitter.