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How to become an ‘alchemist’ in the face of technological disruption

Andy Lothian

The rise of new technology and automation poses a very particular conundrum for business and HR leaders. Contributor  Andy Lothian, CEO – Insights Group.

With technology advancing every year, every month, every week, we’re looking at a near-future where AI could well replace much of the work that people currently perform. A report from McKinsey found that 800 million global workers will lose their jobs by 2030 and be replaced by robotic automation. We hear about trends of overwhelmed employees in organisations, as a direct result of the always-connected lifestyle and information overload.

On the other hand other experts have reported that AI, robotics and other forms of smart automation have the potential to bring great economic benefits, with PWC recently reporting that it will contribute up to $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030 and lead to significant changes in the way we work more efficiently.

One of the only certain things is that the pace of change we’re experiencing now is the fastest it has ever been in human history, and yet it’s also the slowest it will ever be. Disruptive technologies and AI are going to revolutionise what organisations look like, how customers operate, and what the possibilities are for almost every industry. 

Conflicting messages, continual scaremongering and the sheer pace of digital disruption can leave HR directors and business leaders feeling helpless and ineffective, struggling to build a strategy that feels grounded in reality, which is also capable of meeting the unforeseen demands of the future. How can we possibly plan ahead when we have no idea what tomorrow will bring?

Become an alchemist

The truth is that you don’t have all the answers around how to master every new technology. And you don’t have to. I’m a huge believer that if you’re a transformational leader, you can become an ‘alchemist’ in the face of such disruption. 

An alchemist in the middle ages worked to master the art of turning everyday metals – ordinary things of little value – into precious gold. In the same way, you can create the conditions in which that magical alchemy of technology, people and aspiration can combine to turn something ordinary into something world changing. Here are a few ideas on how:

Follow an upward spiral

My hometown and where Insights has its global headquarters, Dundee, has gone through tremendous growth and innovation over the last 25 years. Back in 1999 Charles Handy, an author of books on organisational behaviour and management, published ‘The New Alchemists’. In it, he told the stories of a number of ‘alchemists’, so-called because “they each created something significant out of nothing or turned the equivalent of base metal into a kind of gold.” And in that book, he talks about Dundee. Calling it a “dour town seeking to reinvent itself”, he saw the potential in the community, and knew that the possibility for alchemy resided there. 

He was right – and years ahead of his time. In 2014, Dundee was designated a UNESCO City of Design. In 2018, the V&A Dundee, Scotland’s first design museum and the newest member of the V&A family, opened on the city’s waterfront to worldwide acclaim.

There is an innate human tendency to look for a comfortable, peaceful place and then protect that position during times of uncertainty. People begin stockpiling and organisations stop investing. It’s human nature to want to stay safely out of the way, despite the fact that change is one of the only certain things in our world now.

In contrast, Dundee is an aspirational place which has seized opportunities. Its story reminds me that when things feel overwhelming, as leaders, we can either feel depressed and remain stagnant, or look around at all things that are fabulous and see them as wonderful opportunities to make them even better. We must never stay in the same place, but keep inching forward, despite the rapid pace of digital change. Choose to follow an upward spiral which means you are prepared to push through uncertain times and meet the challenges that technological development bring with gusto. 

Use technology to get the best out of your people

We can always invest in new technologies to keep up with the competition, but do that to the detriment of your people, rather than the benefit of them and your organisation will not be built to last. Your people are your greatest competitive edge, and their commitment over the decades will put you ahead of any competitor you care to mention, should you get it right.

As society becomes ever more technological, it is the job of the alchemist to create places where communities can flourish and do great things. Absolutely, AI will take a lot of basic jobs – there is no question of that. However, when technology takes care of everything routine, businesses will have the opportunity to discover exactly what their people are capable of. 

Give your people the chance to adopt new technologies to help them enhance their human skills: things like building deep relationships, unfettered creativity, holding genuine empathy for others, listening, asking tough questions, and life-long learning. Exciting digital developments provide a great chance to streamline tedious processes and root out environmentally wasteful or inefficient ones.; to make it easier to work anywhere, and increase productivity.

Thanks to online communication tools, team synchronisation has never been easier, as technology enables us to work more closely in some ways even as we are scattered across the globe. Collaboration is also simpler– even when colleagues are not physically in the same place. Teams can hold meetings remotely with video-conferencing technology and work on shared documents simultaneously with cloud-based tools. Technology will not only do mundane jobs, but it has already made it easier for your people to become experts in relationships, communication, collaboration, innovation – in other words, experts in humanity – and there’s so much more to come

Draw on the power of community

When L&D budgets were being cut heavily during the 2008 recession and our competitors’ revenues were shrinking by half, I lay awake at night staring at the ceiling, wondering how on Earth we would survive. I didn’t know if we could. I only knew that the very last thing I wanted to do was make people redundant. People with families and mortgages, who had built our business from the ground up. It was unthinkable.

Our leadership team had hit a wall. We couldn’t see any other ways to cut costs or increase revenue, and so we did something that has forever changed how I think about the nature of organisations, and the power of community. We asked our people what we should do.

We gathered every employee together and asked them to help us find new and better ways to increase revenue and cut costs. It was like opening a tap: people were shouting out ideas, getting into groups to organise next steps, offering up thoughts they’d long kept to themselves about how we could do things better, or more efficiently. I’d never been so inspired by a purposeful community of people. We implemented so many of those ideas, and changed lots of our processes, becoming a leaner, smarter, more creative organisation along the way.

The message is that if you’re an alchemist leader, you’ll have gathered a mixture of people who are better than you at what they do. Use them, draw on their extensive expertise, and let them lead the way forward when you can no longer see how to get the best out of constant digital change.

Lead your people with humanity so that they’re inspired to display their own. Give them a purpose that transcends their day-to-day work. Encourage them to harness all of these emerging technologies to build something greater than the sum of its parts. That way, not only will you invest in your people, but they will invest their time and ideas in you.

By choosing to be vulnerable and asking for help, you can invoke the power of community. I guarantee that if you are able to partner, cooperate, share, believe, dream, plan, and celebrate together, you will be staggered by the ingenuity of your people. The brilliant ideas they can come up with that will drive your business forward, even when it is hard to predict what will happen from one day to the next, will blow you away, and inspire you all over again. 

Now more than ever, you need to believe in alchemy and in what communities are capable of when they work together.  

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