“How am I supposed to ‘sell’ my team on AI if I don’t even fully understand it yet?” Arjun had asked himself this question in his mind–several times, in fact–but this was the first opportunity he’d taken to share it out loud with someone else.
Elizabeth, a 71-year-old retired high school teacher, waited to see if Arjun had more to say. Then she took a deep breath, as she was known to do before offering bits of her wise counsel, and smiled.
“You’re trying to become an expert on all-things AI in a matter of a few days,” Elizabeth said. “No one can put that kind of pressure on themselves without getting stressed out and unfocused. You need to step back from all this, and ask yourself, “What are two or three of the most important things I need to learn and communicate about AI right now?”
Arjun considered this. He knew that no matter how he positioned the creation of artificial intelligence (AI) products to his boss and peers, each would skillfully–and rapidly–fire off pointed questions laced with skepticism. The 42-year-old software engineer recognized that AI would be a significant change for a small company that created “virtual reality travel experiences” for its clients–mostly, municipalities and hospitality brands marketing their cities to potential travelers.
Before chatting with Elizabeth, Arjun invested countless hours trying to get up to speed on what AI was all about and how it could enhance virtual reality. But now he felt that despite all of this effort he was more unclear about AI than ever before.
From “Information Overload” to “Strategic Learning”
Elizabeth worked part-time at the resource center on the first floor of the office complex where the virtual travel company has its lease. People who worked in the complex enjoyed stopping by the center and chatting with Elizabeth for a few minutes on their way into work, out to lunch, or on the way home.
“The best way to understand and drive a big change like this,” Elizabeth told Arjun, “is not to gather random bits of information in a haphazard manner, like you’ve been doing. You’re about to burst at the seams with everything you’ve been absorbing.” Arjun laughed and nodded.
“Instead,” she continued, “Be a ‘strategic learner.’ Take a fresh look at the outcome you’re hoping to achieve when you pitch this to your boss and co-workers. Imagine yourself making the pitch to them. How, exactly, will AI products make the company more successful? What will customers experience, and then do differently as a result? And then, spend your learning energy on understanding just enough to make that pitch with a few specifics.”
Arjun followed Elizabeth’s advice, and came up with the idea of a “travel companion” built into the virtual reality experience. This AI “persona” wouldn’t just share information about a destination with potential travelers, but respond in real time to their questions with specific answers tailored just for them. Furthermore, the persona would “empathize” with the feelings behind travelers’ questions or comments. As a result, customers would feel a powerful emotional draw toward the destination in question and be more likely to book a trip.
During his pitch to his manager and colleagues, Arjun kept things simple and laser-focused enough that the group agreed to develop a prototype and test it out with a couple of their major clients. They did raise some functionality and cost questions that Arjun needed to research; his work was far from complete. But Arjun had successfully navigated the first hurdle; his colleagues had accepted his pitch and everyone was moving forward on the prototype plan.
Successful Change Leaders
Because change–whether it’s trying to leverage a disruptive trend such as AI, a departmental reorganization, a new software system, or a shuffling of people into new roles–is so unsettling to many people, those leading it need to ensure they’re implementing the right changes at the right time. And to do that, change leaders like Arjun can’t just rely on what’s worked in the past or turn to their proverbial, well-tuned “gut.”
Instead, successful change leaders invest the time to zero in on the best two to three ideas for changes that could benefit their organization, including its employees, customers, and bottom line. This process of narrowing down helps cement the “why” behind the pending change implementation, and will improve the leader’s agility to make quick adjustments as needed.
Too Busy to Learn?
Busy leader or influencer? I don’t care whether you need to “find the time’ to do this while on an airplane, during a break between meetings, or during a long commute while listening to a helpful podcast. Create the time, because prioritizing your own learning will show up in clear strategy and confidence when it’s time to take action and begin dialogue with your people about the pending change.
As McKinsey & Company notes in this article, this type of ongoing learning is going to become “increasingly central to your job: maximizing the value and impact of your organization…In the future, more and more of your people will need to use complex cognitive skills for more and more of their time. Some are already comfortable with this; some are not. As stewards of your company’s value, you need to understand how to get your people ready—not because it’s a nice thing to do but because the competitive advantage of early adopters of advanced algorithms and robotics will rapidly diminish.”
Many professionals, especially executives, don’t invest time in their own focused learning. They’re too busy leading others, solving problems, managing balance sheets, and getting things done. Focused learning–especially driven by a thoughtful strategy on what’s most important to learn right now–is viewed as a luxury, not a necessity.
This alternative, road-less-traveled assertion that change leaders are strategic learners involves a learning agility habit. Learning agility is the practice of regularly seeking new experiences, applying feedback, and reflecting on lessons learned, to keep growing professionally and personally.
And for many leaders, as Arjun realized through Elizabeth’s sagacity, investing the time to gather the most valuable knowledge before acting is a “new experience” in and of itself.