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Is Your AI Plan Just Paving the Cow Paths?
Strategies and Techniques for Change Agents, Strategists, and Innovators
It is time to stop paving the cow paths — Michael Hammer
A colleague and I were in a meeting this week with a prospective client. The premise of the meeting was to discuss how they might consider proceeding with a program to explore AI, large language models (aka ChatGPT) and other disruptive technologies. Fantastic setup and discussion.
I’m an industrial engineer by education. My thinking is always oriented to improving business and customer outcomes by attacking cycle time, quality, costs, waste, value versus non-value activity, integrating work and data, and THEN applying technology. I can’t help myself.
Obliterate —>Integrate—>Automate: Always in that order.
The discussion turned to the opportunity to run better meetings by leveraging AI to capture notes, catch people up and action items. There are many integrated AI driven tools out there supporting this use case.
I should have bit my tongue.
Don’t Pave Cow Paths
In the seminal book “Renenginnering the Corporation: A Manefesto for Business Revolution” by Michael Hammer and James Champy, the authors laid out the classic approach of simplifying and rationalizing, rethinking business processes, in order to achieve better business results. They defined this fundamental rethinking of processes “re-engineering.”
One key premise of their work is to not pave cowpaths. Cowpaths are our existing processes, habits, policies and work functions. One must first rationalize the work, then design functions around the definition of value added work, integrate the activity with other activities to create flow, harmonization, metrics and then, thoughtfully, apply technology.
It is time to stop paving the cow paths. Instead of embedding outdated processes in silicon and software, we should obliterate them and start over. We should “reengineer” our businesses: use the power of modern information technology to radically redesign our business processes in order to achieve dramatic improvements in their performance.— Michael Hammer1
We now have a whole new toolkit. ChatGPT is as much a moment in time as it is an application. The moment is this: by using ChatGPT, everyone can all intuit how powerful AI technology like this could be in our work. This is an “AH HA!” moment for most professionals. The awakening is much bigger than the ChatGPT application.
What most of us are doing is tinkering with tools like ChatGPT, Google Bard or Microsoft Bing Chat and others, finding individual productivity opportunities. Fantastic!
But these individual experiments have many limitations and risks. Among those limitations is standardizing how AI is used across a team or function, and designing the new choreography, workflow, procedures, policies and metrics needed to scale and manage a function and process.
My Big Mouth
In our client discussion about applying AI, I just had to open my big mouth. “Well if you really want to run better meetings, first, rationalize the meetings you have and you can probably cancel 25% to 50% of them. Then define and train for better meeting hygiene.” Meeting hygiene is how we actually run effective meetings.
That comment got a sideways look from the AI sponsor, and an enthusiastic “yes!” from the CFO. What I was suggesting is that we should not pave cowpaths with AI.
There are many estimates that, on average, management spends 35% of their time in meetings. In many companies that I have worked with, I would say it is more like 50% of time or more. How effective are these meetings? Is there a defined purpose, agenda, preparation, attendance, and post-meeting communication? How many of these meetings could be eliminated and have improved results with better meeting hygiene?
To create scaleable, repeatable, measurable, trainable, auditable and trusted functions and processes using AI and other disruptive technologies, an assessment and redesign of the work, the “job-to-be-done” analysis, is typically required.
We are entering a new era of work automation, but you must lead with a fundamental redesign of work, functions, processes and jobs along with the technology. You must first reengineer the work. This results in the full benefit of productivity and the resulting functions are trustworthy and scalable.
What’s Your Plan?
I’m keenly interested in learning how companies are evaluating the opportunity and risks for leveraging AI. Please reach out (email@example.com) if you’d be willing to share. I’ll try to behave.
About The Digital Leader Newsletter
This is a newsletter for change agents, strategists, and innovators. The Digital Leader Newsletter is a weekly coaching session focusing on customer-centricity, innovation, and strategy. We deliver practical theory, examples, tools, and techniques to help you build better strategies, better plans, and better solutions — but most of all, to think and communicate better.
John Rossman is a keynote speaker and advisor on leadership and innovation.
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