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The end of the "check-the-box" era

In my 2013 Global Peter Drucker Forum winning essay, Post-Causality: a Quiet Global Revolution in the Making, I made a compelling point that the world is moving away from an "if-then" paradigm. We are indeed moving away from the simple causal credo of the "if you find yourself in this situation, then check this box" type. But it is a slow, protracted transition. According to Nilofer Merchant, between 1950 and 2010 the percentage of the workforce that utilizes independent judgement has been left flat at 33%. But what is independent judgement you might ask? A fair question. The United States Department of Labor describes discretion and independent judgement thus:

In general, the exercise of discretion and independent judgment involves the comparison and the evaluation of possible courses of conduct, and acting or making a decision after the various possibilities have been considered. The exercise of discretion and independent judgment must be more than the use of skill in applying well-established techniques, procedures or specific standards described in manuals or other sources.

So independent judgement is definitely not about checking the boxes of an algorithmic process in the pursuit of predefined outcomes. And yet a staggering 77% of the population does just that. At the same time, we fear our jobs will be taken away by technological innovation. Who are good at checking boxes based on established procedures, techniques and standards - i.e. algorithms? Computers of course! Something does have to give indeed.

I propose we'll be smart enough not to personify computers as "evil" and choose instead the only rational future - a world where humans are tasked with value judgement pursuits, enabled by smarter computers than can take over even the most sophisticated "check-the-box" human jobs. Really people, it is time to admit Excel Spreadsheets is not the pinnacle aspiration for the human condition. The economic value of just such an approach? About 140 trillion according to David Nordfors. More than enough to disrupt unemployment according to the same David Nordfors and Vint Cert. Nordfors and Cert insightfully observe:

It's not that we are innovating too much. The problem is that we are trying to run the new economy in the old way. The old way is about doing more of the same, more efficiently. It's about standardizing tasks, creating work manuals, and such things -- many of them very tedious and non-rewarding. Well, that's what machines are good at, so if this is only what the economy is about, yes -- we will be losing more jobs all the time. And now we are worried, because we can't imagine what people can do instead. So that's what we are lacking: imagination.

It isn't technology that stands in our way to prosperity. It is us. It is our own psychology. The "check-the-box" credo is deeply embedded in our collective psyche. It is also in conflict with the rules of the universe, particularly those of the living world. And here's why.

The check-the-box operating model is a subtle proxy for shunning risk. Check all the right boxes and you're guaranteed to be rewarded. Check the corporate boxes and you are entitled to a certain promotion. Hit your targets and you make a bonus. Do this and you get that. Sound familiar? It is how our society still operates. In a naive (and long term counterproductive) attempt to deny complexity and its emergent risks, we make false guarantees of the "if-then" type.Exercising judgement on the other hand is the essence of risk-taking. You will make mistakes. You will suffer the consequences. But you will also learn and mature. You will learn to appreciate uncertainty and become responsible and humble rather than entitled and arrogant. In other words, you attain wisdom. Wisdom that no computer can ever take away or emulate. Wisdom that can never be programmed in an algorithm of the "if-then" type.

Too many of our society's leaders and power brokers and even thought leaders are the product of check-the-box advancement. They checked all the right boxes and are rewarded with decision making without having had to exercise much judgement along the way. Without understanding and appreciating the inherently uncertain and indeterminate nature of life, they proclaim check-the-box strategies that are too rigid for the ebb and flow that is the unfolding future. We are left with crises and social unrest. It is their fault. It is also our fault. They are us. We are them. And we are tied in a covenant of the (check)box.

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