Why AI means every company will need a clear North Star

Machines must make us better humans. Machines must also make all our companies better businesses, too. In the era of AI, every businesses will need a clearly-stated core purpose to help them navigate the impending automation tsunami. Let me explain. 

Machines must make us better humans

That was the core idea of a slightly rambling TED Talk that I gave a few years back.

That simple idea, perhaps more relevant today than it has ever been, hides a much deeper and more important question: What does being it mean to be a "better human"?

For each of us, the answer to that question will be different; We all live complex, multi-facetted lives. What does it mean to be a better mother or father, son or daughter, husband, wife or partner, boss, employee, co-worker, sibling, or friend? The answers to those questions should illuminate the broader answer of what being a better human looks like for you.

The premise of my TED Talk was that with the ever-accelerating rate of technological change, the only way we can be equipped to make quick, high-quality decisions about how to incorporate new technology into our lives is if we have already faced and answered the deeper question: "What does it mean to be a better human?" 

With an avalanche of new technology on the way, we will each need to decide which tech we want to invite into our world, and when, where and how we will use it. It took us a while to figure out how to incorporate mobile technology; Many of us are still struggling with that one. But it's going to get much tougher from here on out. For example, will you leave your kids or grandkids with a robot babysitter? Do you want a robot caregiver to help your aging parent or grandparent? Should self-driving cars faced with an unavoidable crash be programmed to prioritize the lives of its occupants at all costs or save as many people as possible at the scene (possibly sacrificing its occupants) Should a robot read your child a book before bed? What if it could read that book in another language and so teach your child new skills? Will you anonymously share your genetic data to help improve medical research? Are you prepared to eat food made from crickets to relieve pressure on the global food supply? Will you fly in an autonomous passenger drone?

These are just a few of the questions that we will face in the coming years. We may find it overwhelming unless we have set a clear context to help us figure out our responses. Each question will be much easier to answer if we already have a clear idea of what it is to be our best selves, and thus what we aspire towards. Every person needs that clear North Star to describe how we want our lives to be better going forward.

Companies are no different

Major businesses are already scrambling to deploy artificial intelligence (AI) throughout their operations. Over time, all businesses will follow. AI is being used to create new value, to optimize operational efficiency, to reduce labor costs, and to serve customers in new ways.

In some cases, tasks formerly performed by humans are now being handled by AI. This AI can come either in the form of an algorithm, or a robot. Usually, the AI allows humans to focus their efforts on higher-value, and hopefully more rewarding work. In some case though, it results in a human hitting the unemployment line. But that's a topic for another day.

Every time that you replace human labor using an intelligent machine, you are typically asking the machine to make the same set of decisions that the human once made. And many business decisions have a clear ethical dimension to them. This means that when you deploy AI inside your organization, you must understand the ethics of each and every decision that you are automating. 

As AI technology becomes more capable, AI-based solutions become more sophisticated, and the price of deployment falls, businesses will all scramble to leverage AI throughout every one of their business processes. AI will often be working side-by-side with human co-workers. That means a lot of decisions will be automated, and a lot of ethics will need to be thought through. It's going to get overwhelming, and fast.

Business needs a North Star, too

Business goals are met by developing and executing strategies. Tactics support each strategy. Tactics are supported by business processes, and fundamentally by decisions. Decisions made all day, every day. All those decisions add up to either meeting your business goals, or not. As Andy Grove always reminded me, "Strategy is destiny."

The hierarchy looks like this: Decisions > Processes > Tactics > Strategies > Goals. There's one more level in the hierarchy that sits above Goals. It's your corporate purpose.

Every company should have a clear, concise purpose statement.

Every company should have a clear, concise purpose statement.

Every good company should have a clearly-stated vision, mission and purpose. Sadly, many companies do not. Mission tells you what the company does on a day-to-day basis in an effort to fulfill it's purpose. Vision tells you what the world will look like if a company successfully executes their mission and fulfills their purpose. Many company websites list a vision and mission statement. Most do not talk about their purpose, though they probably should.

Purpose should be humanistic

The purpose of a company is NOT to make money. As the great Simon Sinek points out, revenue and profit should be the result of excellent execution against your core, humanistic purpose. Profit is not the reason that your organization exists. If making money was truly your company's only purpose, you would be a drug cartel. But you're not a drug cartel, which means you have some other, higher purpose.

Coca Cola, Disney, and Starbucks are all very successful companies. Each one makes a lot of money for their shareholders. But their purpose for existing is not to make money; That is a result of their wild success in fulfilling their purpose. The Coca Cola company exists to refresh people, Disney to make people happy, and Starbucks to give people a third place to be, between work and home.

Every company needs a North Star; A clear purpose that guides their strategic plan, from which they set their goals, and from which they determine their corporate values.

AI makes clear purpose vital

As AI is broadly deployed in businesses over the next decade or two, companies will need to stay laser-focused on their core, humanistic purpose. They will need to communicate that purpose clearly and relentlessly to all their employees. Because it will be their employees' North Star as they train, deploy and work with AI. AI learns from historical data, from historical behaviors. In that process, it can also pick up on human biases that may not be consistent with your company's values or purpose. By measuring your AI's performance against whether or not it advances you towards your vision, or not, you can watch for and correct for bias. Only by making it clear to your employees what your purpose is, will they be able to successfully embrace AI and deploy it within your organization without going adrift. And going adrift can be costly.

As my new friend, Mark Abrams, pointed out to me earlier this week, the Deepwater Horizon disaster didn't happen because a group of oil people got together and thought, "Screw it, let's risk everything to make a buck." Instead it was because BP focused on optimizing for the the wrong business metric: They did everything they could to reduce the time it took to drill through 10,000 feet. That improved operational efficiency and reduced time to money, but it also cost BP $20 Billion and left the gulf coast with an ecological disaster.

What we optimize for matters. What we aim for matters. If employees don't have a clear purpose and a North Star to follow, especially when going through change, bad things can happen.

Purpose is destiny

As we approach this next massive wave of automation, it is more important then ever for every company to be crystal clear on its purpose, it's brand promise, and its vision for its future self. 

Machines should make us better humans. Machines should also make our companies better companies. Now all you have to do is to clearly define what "better company" means for you.