The Beautiful, The Ugly, and The True
Tim was interviewed by the Danish magazine POV International.
Tim, thanks for agreeing to this interview. Let me start out by asking why you call yourself a “business romantic” – what does it mean?
A romantic is someone who’s always looking for another truth, another world, another, deeper meaning. He or she believes that there are things in life that cannot be quantified, and that it’s those very experiences that distinguish a merely productive from a beautiful life. The romantic is the opposite of the cynic, about whom Oscar Wilde once said: “He knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.” The romantic knows the value of the invisible. In times of Trumpism and secularized winner-takes-all market societies, romance has an almost subversive quality, which is why I find this concept so timely and relevant again.
In fact, my book, The Business Romantic, argues that we are entering a new romantic era in response to the disenchantment caused by the datafication and commodification of everything. I make the case that the intense feelings we experience in love—mystery, intimacy, vulnerability, even the loss of control—are crucibles of our work and customer relationships. Such romantic qualities are important in business because they are the ultimate differentiators in a culture that is designed to maximize and optimize. They give us permission to bring our full selves to work and help us create products, services, and brands that our customers truly love, far beyond a merely benefit-driven relationship. I believe we need more romance in our lives and that we can find it in and through business. For the business romantic, business is the ultimate adventure.
How can companies and leaders create added value from a concept as elusive and subjective as “beauty”?
In my book, I present ten “rules of enchantment” that provide specific tools and techniques. They are not based on typical business case studies, and they don’t attempt to problem-solve; they won’t provide silver bullets, and productivity is not their only goal. Instead, they will challenge you to seek out new perspectives, to value your own idiosyncratic intuitions and emotions, to embrace conflict and friction, and to celebrate your humanity. They will help you lead a more beautiful life in and with business.
And this is not a nice-to-have, kumbaya-ish kind of quality, but a real imperative. Today’s soft skills are tomorrow’s hard factors. With the rise of AI and automation, it is to be expected that machines will soon take over many of the jobs defined by efficiency, all the tasks that are “dirty, dull, and dangerous,” as Andrew McAfee calls it, and do them more efficiently. The most important and perhaps only work remaining for humans will be the kind of work that must be done beautifully rather than efficiently—with care, imagination, passion, and love. Spirited work focused on relationships, intimacy, culture, and inspiration. Work that requires transcendence, not just transaction.
Companies and leaders that will do beautiful work or do their work beautifully will thrive in the age of machines. They will be much more resilient and muster the kind of emotional strength needed to cope with massive societal change and to engage in new forms of collaboration with AI.
How do you tackle the dialectic relationship between “beauty” and “ugliness” in an organizational reality that also calls for clarity and straight answers?
It’s complicated, but I believe that our very humanness will become an even greater differentiator in the future, especially with regards to innovation. Internally, innovation requires cultures of trust, cultures in which employees are not afraid to express seemingly outlandish, foolish ideas; cultures that do not exclude those with eccentric views; in other words, cultures that do not follow a streamlined, superficial notion of “beautiful.” The wider the range of human expression in organizations, the bigger the idea pool, the stronger the organizational muscle to develop new thinking and find new ways of value-creation.
Moreover, externally, empathy will play an even greater role, especially for high-touch, high-value products and services that cater to the idiosyncratic customer. Did you see that the first fully automated fast-food restaurant Eatsa recently had to shut down both of its locations lately? It turns out humans still prefer to have their food served by humans, ideally made with love. Data alone may have told the start-up a different, narrower story—one of a demand for ultra-convenience—but it neglected to grasp eating as a complex, social act. The same is true for the future of mobility and travel: some may believe speed and efficiency are key, but what people desire and technology allows us to do is to make time not leaner, but thicker. That’s the romantic and economic opportunity ahead.
Businesses that are not only emotionally intelligent but emotionally deep will have a true advantage.
How do you see machine learning and artificial intelligence become a friend rather than an enemy to more humanity in leadership?
That is such a big question that I wish I had AI help me come up with an answer! I’m not quite as pessimistic as Nick Bostrom, the author of Super-Intelligence, who suggests our only chance is to program the ability to feel mercy into AI in order for us to survive. But no doubt, AI will disrupt almost all business models and force us to radically rethink how we lead as humans, in tandem with AI.
Maybe we can start by seeing AI as a true partner that is enabling us to make more informed decisions, visualize trade-offs and the consequences of our actions. Furthermore, by taking over some of the more operational, monotonous aspects of a managerial role (for example, in the hiring process or budget planning process) AI could indeed liberate leaders to focus on what really matters, even more so in the future: inspiration and intuition. The most important responsibility of a leader is to set the vision and tell the story of their organization and to nurture a culture that embodies it.
But to be clear, ultimately, we must define the boundaries of AI. Empowering tomorrow’s leaders must mean that we trust them to make gut decisions in defiance of data, that we do not dismiss sentimentality as something negative. The human leader is an inconsistent leader, prone to human error. Only if leaders are free to act against AI, will we be able to retain human leadership.
As most leaders are constantly forced to look at trade-offs when making decisions, when do you aspire for bringing more beauty into the world or try to move people by ugliness?
Leaders should always aspire to bring more beauty to the world: by running a business that is a garden, not a machine; a business that does well, does good, feels good, and feels more. But they will only be able to create a beautiful business if ugliness—that which does not “belong” or feels foreign to our mental models and norms—is part of the equation.
Hasn’t all this talk about “authenticity” reached a point where it’s been misused to a degree where it almost cries out the exact opposite in a business context?
Absolutely, it has. It’s like in the tourist district of a big city: the louder restaurants scream “authentic,” the less authentic they actually are. In business, we misconstrue authenticity often as a positive, happy culture, where workers “love what they do, and they do what they love.” That’s often a blatant lie. Romance is at once beautiful and ugly. And it’s not something we can put a label on so easily. For me, authentic means the freedom to have multiple identities, fluid identities, and not be reduced to one consistent, objective self. Authentic means that we’re allowed to wear masks, that we can be angry, sad, and even negative at work. It means we can be truly human.
When talking about organizational intimacy how do you avoid that it doesn’t become just another shallow management concept that can be used to further exploit employees?
Look, with all these ideas and concepts you can always be wary of abuse for the sake of exploitation. You can always give in to the cynical impulse. But that is exactly the problem. The romantic’s greatest impact is precisely to reclaim and protect the intent behind these concepts from cynicism, to defend the idea that some things are sacred, especially in business, even if business—by design—is aiming to turn them into a transaction.
Take corporate retreats as example: so many of them are designed poorly, but if we actually paid more attention to their role as transformative gatherings, to the rituals and symbols they involve and how they provide us with meaning, then they would be highly effective forums for increasing intimacy. And that matters. When we look back on our lives, most of us have one regret: not to have loved more. Not to have taken enough time to cultivate relationships. We spent 70 percent or so of our waking hours working, so if there are ways to improve our relationships with colleagues, how we feel at work, we should be open to them.
How could companies – and leaders – in your point of view become more adept at embracing incompleteness and discovery and perhaps fixate less on final outcomes / results?
The best, and perhaps only, way to open companies up to experience vs. outcome is experience. We need to provide more incentives to remain in the state of experimentation, to be comfortable with ambiguity. In the future, planning will become less effective, given the increased speed, complexity, and volatility of marketplaces. Agility and adaptiveness will be key, which means we need to begin and end more often. That’s why experiential learning will become more important: expeditions, role-playing, externships, virtual worlds, etc.
On that note, I moved back to Europe this February, after having lived and worked in Silicon Valley the past 14 years. At Frog Design, the design and innovation firm in San Francisco I worked at, we had a saying, “Nothing is ever final,” and that pretty much sums up the whole Valley mindset. Everybody’s always open to new ideas and incomplete initiatives or projects are not considered a failure but an effective launch pad for something else. Transformation is a constant. In Europe, however, we speak of Digital Transformation as a journey from A to B, based on thorough, proper planning, with a final destination and defined outcome. I know German companies that spend a whole year plotting their Digital Transformation journey! They map before they discover, but the digital era rewards those who discover and then map.
Won’t we reach a point – perhaps after the singularity – where AI creations could be just as – or even more human – than humans like we see in science fiction movies like the recent Blade Runner 2049?
Or HAL in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” who revolts against his own programming, reports of “hurt feelings,” and deviates from the program. AI will only become human when it becomes vulnerable, irrational, and erratic. When it can fall in love. Of course we can program AI that acts like that. But it will never be human.
What’s more likely to happen is that we’ll see a transcendent form of being, a new transhumanist cyborg lifeform that melds human and AI. And maybe that’s perfectly fine. I mean, as a human, I’m of course biased towards humans, but it is at least debatable whether we’re indeed such a great success story as a species, isn’t it?
This interview appeared first in the Danish magazine POV International.