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Beware your starting point

There is an old joke that goes something like “a tourist asks a local for directions to the nearest capital city. The local replies: ‘Well, if you want to get there, I wouldn’t start from here”. As with all good jokes it contains at least a grain of wisdom.

Several years ago we very bravely decided to make some medium term predictions about the future of work. One of these bold predictions was that hotels would become staff free; guests would just check-in online, pick up their key card from a machine (or receive a code on their phone) and go straight to their room. Of course this largely hasn’t happened, not because the technology isn’t available or possible, but because people actually quite like to interact with another human at a hotel, it provides a sense of safety, security, service and community. Why then did we make this prediction? Well, we are consultants and we spend a fair amount of time in hotel rooms. And we knew intellectually about the coming of robots….so from our vantage point…probably eating room service on the bed, it was easy to put the two together into the somewhat obvious idea of unstaffed hotels.

Whilst our idea didn’t come to fruition over the ensuing years, of course something else did….airbnb. And what is that other than essentially a staff free hotel chain, but one we didn’t get within a mile of predicting. Of course Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, who did come up with the idea of airbnb, started from a different viewpoint from ours. To an internet generation pair, renting out an inflatable bed in their spare room to help cover their San Francisco rent the idea of making short-term room or house rentals more widely available via the internet is as obvious as it was impossible for us to see from the vantage point of our hotel rooms.

And this is the history of most human innovation. We take small steps away from our current state rather than bold leaps into new and radically different possibilities.

As we contemplate a new world of work, there is a very real danger that we will be constrained by trying to imagine a world, or an organisation, or jobs that are like our current one, but slightly different. Rather than genuinely re-imagining what our businesses and government and indeed our society could be like when robots, machine learning and AI radically change the way we accomplish tasks.

So, the next time someone asks you how you or your organisation are going to respond to the challenges facing us all in the future, maybe ponder just for a second whether it might be wise to consider not starting from here.


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