The transition to the cognitive computing and artificial intelligence age, like the industrial revolution before it, is expected to unleash massive upheaval for companies, employees, and society as a whole. It will involve a rethinking of the necessary skills to be productive and innovative. “When it comes to smart machines, we cannot stay relevant using the traditional mindsets, culture, and leadership models. To excel, we have to play a different game,” warns Ed Hess, Business Professor at the University of Virginia Darden School. His new book, Humility Is the New Smart, co-authored with Katherine Ludwig, offers actionable insights for coping and thriving in the new era, describing how to nurture the critical skills that machines can’t replicate.
Forget about being the cleverest, smartest person in the room. To excel at what the authors call the ‘NewSmart’, humans must embrace a mindset of humility. MARGINALIA spoke with Hess, to find out more.
In this interview, the author describes the need for an others-focused attitude, the importance of critical, innovative thinking, as well as high emotional engagement. Plus, he shares some of the traits that innovative organisations should display in the smart machine age.
Gloria Lombardi: What prompted you to write Humility Is the New Smart?
Ed Hess: Writing Humility Is the New Smart has been an iterative process, which goes back eight years. Humility is the New Smart is the follow up to my previous book, ‘Learn or Die’, which used science to describe learning cultures inside organisations – learning being seen as the building block of operational excellence and innovation. How do people learn? What are the obstacles to learning? And, how do we overcome those obstacles?
After Learn and Die, I started to focus deeply on technology and how individuals can excel in jobs that machines cannot do. There was and still is consensus that those jobs involve the skills that are uniquely human: critical, innovative thinking, creativity, and high emotional engagement. But how does a person learn and become adept at these skills?
Based on my knowledge in psychology, I started to look at the behaviours that underlie innovation, critical, creative thinking and high emotional engagement. These behaviours include curiosity, open mindedness, willingness to experiment, mindfulness, listening, and being reflective.
But, while going deeper into those behaviours, I found that it was especially hard for senior executives to realise that they needed to take their game to a higher level. Their ego was all wrapped up in knowing and being smart. That is how and why I developed the concept of the ‘NewSmart’. In the machine age, we can no longer build our identity around how much we know; we must reshape ourselves around the quality of our thinking. That concept opened up the gateway, which led to Humility Is the New Smart.
GL: Why is the ‘NewSmart’ concept so critical in the machine age?
EH: Let’s go back to our toddler period. Most of us at the young age of 3, 4, or 5 years were very curious. We tried new things. We were resilient, fearless, and unafraid of failure. Then school began. The majority of us were taught that to be smart we had to achieve the highest test scores. Hence, we had to avoid mistakes. So we went through life thinking that if we had the highest grades at school we were smart. We started to identify with how much and what we knew.
But we are now entering the cognitive computing and artificial intelligence age. If we continue identifying with, and building our ego based on, how much we know we are going to lose! We will never be able to gather and process more information, recall more patterns, or know more than IBM Watson and other cognitive technologies. Machines will offer data in context much more quickly than any of us. So we lose the game.
Therefore, the old definition of being a smart person must be left behind – if we keep considering our intelligence to be built around how much we know, we will prevent ourselves from innovating in ways that machines cannot.
We need a relevant definition of smart, the ‘NewSmart’. We should partially define ourselves by the quality of our thinking, listening, and collaborating proficiencies.
GL: How does the NewSmart link to humility?
EH: In the dictionary, the term humility relates to ‘weakness, submissiveness, thinking lowly of yourself’. That is not what we are talking about in the book; We’re looking at the psychological construct of humility. It’s about being able to acknowledge our mistakes, acknowledge what we do not know, being open to new ideas, being willing to test our ideas, and consider contradictory information. Even more importantly, being able to go and find contradictory information. We should avoid the trap of believing our success is all about ‘me’, when we’ve obviously had help and support along the way, and no doubt had some luck too. A wholesome perspective is needed.
One the most important parts of the psychological construct of humility is the tendency to forget about the self, going away from this me-focus. The me-focus can display itself in different ways, for example, by interrupting people while conversing, being very argumentative, and not listening to others because we have to be right. The me-focused person’s ego drives them to be emotionally defensive when someone challenges them, and they might even attack others to make themselves ‘look good’.
But, let’s think about it: if we are so self-centred and focused on ourselves, how can we be open-minded enough to spot opportunities? How can we be good critical thinkers, and innovators in the smart machine age?
The science is crystal clear: I cannot overcome my cognitive biases when processing information alone; I need others to help me as I cannot do everything by myself. And for others to want to help me, I have to be others-focused, instead of me-focused – that is why humility is so important.
GL: How can organisations start looking at these behavioural changes?
EH: To teach people humility, and how to be critical thinkers, or to teach them how to emotionally engage others, organisations need to nurture the right culture that drives those behaviours.
In the book, we provide some examples from companies such as Google, Pixar, United States Navy SEALs, and Bridgewater Associates among others. Even though they belong to different industries – Google is in the innovation business, Pixar in the creative business, Bridgewater is in the financial investment sector, and Navy Seals is a military special operational system – it was fascinating to see some similarities among their cultures.
They all recruit for cultural fit, hiring only individuals who they believe will be happy to adjust to the internal values.
They believe in the permission to speak up freely and face brutal facts. They are data driven and adhere to meritocracy – the best ideas wins; not the ideas of the most senior person.
These cultures display psychological safety – there is permission to fail and a rigorous use of learning tools. They work hard to mitigate ego and fear. Humility and team play are rewarded. People are encouraged to be courageous, willing to experiment, resilient and able to bounce back.
Finally, they all use processes, daily, which help people to check themselves. For example, critical thinking checklists, collaboration checklists, reflective listening checklists, and reviews after every meetings. In fact, those companies have realised that we, as human beings, would easily regress to our natural autopilot ways of doing things if we do not check ourselves.
GL: What’s the big lesson here?
EH: Technology is becoming infused in every functional area of the enterprise. Machines will take over many aspects of the operational excellence inside organisations. So, we have to ask ourselves: In order to innovate, what’s going to be the differentiator? The answer, I say, is the quality of the human component of the business – how good your people are at thinking and emotionally engaging with their teammates.
Technology will require businesses to become much more humanistic people-centric places built on psychological principles, not just economic or strategic principles.
Psychology will be even more critical to help people overcome their ego and fears. To help innovate within the business, individuals have to learn humility, become completely open to new and different things without being judgemental and self-protective – it’s about feeling safe with each other and being part of the same team.
The ‘NewSmart’ other-focussed ways of working are going to move the business away from competitive social Darwinism: ‘I am helping you to be better, you are helping me to be better – thank you for helping me’.