Adopt Me: Why Innovations Must Be Humanised

By Tom Alford, Deputy Editor, TMI

As book titles go ‘Technology Is Dead’ is likely to pique the interest of more than a few treasurers, given that the profession is frequently bombarded with messages to the contrary. TMI spoke to its author, Chris Colbert, to find out more.

Fintech specialists live and breathe technology, so when a keynote speaker at the world’s largest fintech event rings the death knell for their pet passion, ears will prick up sharply.

The intentionally provocative title Technology Is Dead, presented by writer, speaker and innovator Chris Colbert to the ‘techy’ multitude at 2019’s Singapore FinTech Festival, has one of civilisation’s “big misses” as its central tenet ­– namely, the lack of capacity for humanity to understand itself.

That tenet, when applied to innovation, prompts Colbert to reveal that our failure to grasp what motivates and demotivates humanity has negative impacts. These range from project failures, to some serious unintended consequences, the latter relating even to ventures perceived as successful. For example, the pressures created by social media – a largely welcome innovation  – have generated some devastating outcomes for many young lives.

Getting real

The question, then, is this: should innovators assume responsibility for the possible outcomes of what they create, just as automobile or aerospace manufacturers have an obligation to protect end users? At the cutting edge of artificial intelligence (AI), where ethics are drawn into theoretical discussions on, for example, how to remove bias in machine learning technology, Colbert believes there is an urgent need to bring on board understandings from disciplines such as psychology, sociology and anthropology.

Doing so, he argues, helps ensure the factors that cause people to do what they do, are considered and acted upon. But, he notes, “in the ethical AI world, there’s not a lot of appetite for that level of rigour”.

This presents a fundamental problem for the progress that tools such as AI may offer, at least in the deployment of machine learning and neural networks in areas such as law or medicine. As Colbert says, if lives are to be positively impacted by software, then humanity first has to agree on the difference between good and bad, and success and failure.

Of course, good versus bad is a debate that has been raging for millennia. As yet, few, if any, moral absolutes have been unearthed (feel free to disagree). Defining what we mean by progress and success is barely any easier. At a basic level it may just mean longevity, says Colbert. People live longer, but are they happier? Now define happiness.

In the interest of getting off the starting block, Colbert draws his working definition from the values-based teachings of British author Richard Barrett delivered via Barrett’s global consciousness index, which in turn is an expansion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

This hierarchy explains how people take care of the fundamentals first, such as food and shelter, and then safety, before engaging in friendship and community. It’s possible to move further up the scale, satisfying self-esteem, before finally achieving self-actualisation or ‘the best we can be’.

Explicit in Barret’s expanded country-level index is the view that measures of success are bound tightly to movement within the hierarchy. From this, Colbert takes successful innovation as being able to meet human needs, at an individual or societal level, rather than being a simple economic measure.

Cult of innovation

Of course, ‘innovation’ has been happening since Palaeolithic man gained control of fire. However, the exponentially increasing rate of digital development (highlighted by Moore’s Law) is creating equally huge waves of excitement and concern. Indeed, for most individuals, organisations and even countries, Colbert describes the technological onslaught as “somewhere between a problem and an opportunity”. However, he warns  all of a pressing need “to embrace the importance of personal and professional evolution as a requisite function, not just for thriving but for surviving on planet earth”.

With many companies offshoring or automating jobs, Colbert notes that plenty of people in countries such as the US and the UK feel displaced ­– and that populist candidates are profiting from disenfranchised voters. However, he believes that not only should individuals be assuming personal responsibility “for seeing this coming, and taking evasive action”, but also that leadership, and the education system specifically, should be doing more to help people prepare for technology-driven change.

Colbert’s first book, This Is It, tackles this theme head-on. He urges people to accept that life is not a dress rehearsal. His first chapter, entitled ‘Evolve Or Else’, is a call to arms for anyone interested in progressing up the hierarchy of needs, “or just staying relevant”, as technological development pushes on regardless. Indeed, he urges, individuals, organisations and countries to “never stop learning”.

Too often though, innovation is treated by organisations as a discrete function, says Colbert. He suggests that many have set up innovation labs, affording these new entities the resources to hire creative thinkers who are then expected “to somehow completely change the competency and capacity of the entire organisation”. He offers  anecdotal evidence indicating that without full integration across the whole business, these projects could be  a wasted opportunity.

Time to change

“Innovation is like a diet,” notes Colbert. Many will lose weight quickly, some dramatically, but for most, without a change to their fundamental behaviours, one year on, they will have lost nothing. He believes that human behaviour is “the root of all action, decision-making and consequence”, and urges organisations seeking to become innovative to look closely at their own behaviours, starting at the top.

It’s entirely human to lead by example (and to follow respected leaders), but with his contention that the vast majority of people live within the first three levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, Colbert admits that “their orientation towards stretching beyond that, towards taking personal and professional risks, is limited”. Creating an environment when the nature of people within it is risk averse is thus a challenge that must be overcome if innovation is to thrive.

Colbert’s book This Is It exposes his own philosophical approach to this conundrum. On a personal level, progress is not about having something to prove, but about making the most of a finite life. “The capacity to turn minutes into moments is really important, and the way you do that is by being an active learner, being open and engaging with the world.”

Innovation of the ‘self’ may not be structurally required by society at a professional level, but Colbert believes that we live in a world where, professionally at least, evolution is essential. Those individuals and organisations that don’t will be left behind.

With the pace of change outstripping what is perhaps natural for most humans, he suggests that “we all have to start running faster”. Although technology cannot be stopped, its development can be guided by those individuals, communities, organisations and countries that wish to stay relevant.

Truth about humans

The importance of adding ‘humanity’ to the equation for successful technology cannot be overstated. This is not about providing a serviceable user interface/user experience (UI/UX) for a system that meets customer needs (although that is important) but relates to applying the human angle to innovation, understanding and responding to our behaviours, and “connecting with the truth”. It’s a theme Colbert has revisited many times in his Insert: Human podcasts.

Seeking and sharing the truth – irrespective of what it concerns – demands intimacy. It’s why, he explains, many corporations “just can’t do it; the truth can be uncomfortable”. But by avoiding or glossing over the truth, there can be no understanding of how to progress or succeed.

Only by creating an environment where people can be honest, without fear of retribution, can innovation thrive. Google’s Project Aristotle revealed why some teams performed so much better than others. The number one common factor for high performers was that they were all operating under conditions of ‘psychological safety’, where trust was much in evidence. Team members could speak openly and frankly, free of hierarchical anxieties “and the constrictions of office politics and ‘unwritten rules’”.

Truth in systems

Added to the lack of truth in innovation is the failings of the systems that are central to society. Structures around education, health, law enforcement, finance, government and so on, largely define how society works. But these systems do not always function at their peak, and for Colbert, it’s clear that many suffer from what he describes as a “lack of intentionality”: they no longer fully meet the needs of society.

Many of these systems were established decades ago, when adopting a relatively simple intentionality was all that was needed. Education was designed to put diplomas in people’s hands, and health care was intended to keep people alive. But, describing them thus, Colbert maintains that human progress should have seen these systems evolve  long ago.

Indeed, he argues for an education system that helps people realise their full potential, and a health system based on preventative measures, for example. “We need to be thinking about the intention of these systems through the lens of humanity, defining what each is meant to do, relative to the life of a human.” Intentionality, he maintains, should be “more compelling than simply giving people diplomas or keeping them alive”. This relates entirely to progress up the hierarchy of needs, whether at an individual, community or country level.

It’s clear that progress demands that the same design philosophy applied to social systems – bringing humanity to the fore – be applied to organisational innovation. It will be challenging because there is a bias towards “legacy thinking” that clutches on to the familiar, it simply gives us comfort. But for innovation to flourish, a new set of behaviours is required, where we let go of the “protective baggage” of legacy thinking. True innovation, states Colbert, “needs only a clarity of intention and a recognition of human truth”.

Adopter versus user

Unfortunately, evidence that legacy thinking persists remains in strong supply. Forbes’ research shows that around 90% of start-ups fall at the first hurdle, and that corporate innovations frequently fall short of the markMcKinsey highlights a 75% failure rate among corporate and banking digital transformations, and CIO magazine has pinpointed the top 10 reasons why these occur.

For the CIO study, five of the top seven fails are behavioural. “It’s not a technology problem; it’s a human problem,” notes Colbert. He argues that the ultimate measure of success is therefore not in the building but in the adoption, and adoption has a very specific meaning here for him. Users are expected to form a relationship with a product to the degree that it becomes part of their identity, similar to consumer emotional buy-in to a brand ‘lifestyle’.

As MD of the Innovation Lab at Harvard, Colbert worked with on average 200 student and alumni start-ups every semester. “I’d tell them all that most start-ups fail not because they are incapable of building the thing, but because they are incapable of getting humans to adopt it. The big miss is that they are not catering to the truth of the humans for whom they are building.”

If the success of an innovation is defined by its level of adoption, then individuals must give up a part of their self, however tiny, to allow that innovation to form part of who they are. True adoption will see people changing their behaviours, even forgoing alternatives, to accommodate it; this action is exemplified by the wholesale embracing of smartphones and social media.

Dropping the H-bomb

With an individual’s various behaviours affecting the trajectory of their life, Colbert believes that outcomes are to a large extent a product of individual agency. Similarly, he feels that the way people embrace or reject technology forms part of the way they assume stewardship of their own being. Controlled agency and stewardship are changing how successful innovators need to be thinking.

The speed of progress in the technology space has diminished the wow factor; while some may choose to let technology happen to them, many are now hard to impress and resultingly highly selective. To add to the mix, the advent of the pandemic brought with it a strong will to reconnect with humanity. Indeed, whereas Colbert believes he was the only speaker to tackle this theme when presenting at the 2019 Singapore FinTech Festival, he says the 2020 virtualised event was “dominated” by it.

“The H-word has finally found its way to the front of the conversation,” he states. It’s now up to the innovators to adopt a “clear-headed, clear-hearted and humanly connected” approach. Technology, it seems, is dead only for those who fail to breathe real human life into it. Whether future technology will respect this view is a discussion for another time.

Innovating for success: key understandings

  • All human actions are driven by a hierarchy of needs, from meeting basic requirements such as food and shelter, to striving for individual or societal advancement.
  • Humans are naturally driven to innovate and seek progress. Those who don’t, risk being left behind.
  • Innovation thrives best in an environment of openness and honesty, and among active and open learners who are not afraid to let go of old ways.
  • The most successful innovations meet a clear human need, and are willingly adopted into people’s lives.
  • Successful innovators understand the motivations of their target market.