Every week I meet exceptional executives, leaders who know how to leverage technology to deliver exceptional results for their companies and customers. They succeed by figuring out how to make technology work for everyone in their organizations, especially for their customers. They appear focused, motivated and effective.
Lately, in contrast, I find myself in a Covid haze. And I’m not alone. My colleagues and friends share stories of how easily they are distracted, the difficulties of staying focused, their impatience, unexplained anxiety and even sleep deprivation. The global health crisis, economic uncertainty and climate events — not to mention your kids going to school in your living room — are all taking their toll. Generally speaking, everyone is working longer and just not getting as much done.
There was a day recently where I was up in the morning, coffee in hand, and I was contemplating how I would make this day different. So I put pen to paper and began writing my to-do list for the day. But as I was sitting in my remote office, I began gazing at my bookcase and was distracted by a book my daughter had given me for Father’s Day — Limitless by Jim Kwik.
And, no kidding, that’s his real name — Kwik. And his publishers refer to him as the world’s No. 1 brain coach. Believing that nothing happens by accident, I picked up the New York Times bestselling book, and it fell open to a revelation.
There it was in black and white. Jim Kwik, guru of thinking, making the case that digital technology is bad for the brain. As a technology practitioner, I am invested in the positive power of technology, so this got my attention.
According to Kwik, digital technology, like the smartphone glued to my hand, trains the brain to outsource simple functions, creating digital habits that hamper our cognitive abilities. Technology enables digital stimulus — in the form of emails, tweets, streaming news, weather and notices from our social media accounts — to bombard us. This forces us to switch between tasks all day long, which can literally burn up brain fuel. Constant distraction prevents the brain from focusing. The distractions increase the propensity to procrastinate and the downward spiral continues. The good news, he says, is that brains are resilient, and we have the power to change the brain.
I put down the book to refocus on my list, but that simple idea was taunting me: We have the power to change our brains. My clients, digital transformers, are all working through the pivot, and it occurred to me that their success was dependent on their ability to change the brains of their functional teams. The great leaders I work with are changing brains every day.
Successful transformations rely on automation and augmented intelligence — artificial intelligence’s assistive role. Augmented intelligence is meant to enhance human intelligence. By improving human intelligence with machine learning and deep learning algorithms, we change the human brain to rely on AI to discover relationships and solve problems.
The human brain has to improve how it prescribes the data and improve on its ability to ask the right questions. For example, in IT operations, which are critical to every digital business, observability and AI accelerate the ability to isolate the root cause of problems. The human brain has to understand which problems disrupt customer service, as an example. The service could be an ATM transaction, a remote telehealth appointment, a sporting event streaming to your living room or a Zoom call with your boss.
Typically, the brain is trained to react or respond to disruption; AI enables us to change the way the brain works from simply responding to a problem to predicting and ultimately preventing problems from happening at all. Today, the challenge for the brain is not analyzing patterns in large data sets and making decisions — AI can do that. The challenge for the brain is giving the best data to the AI engine and then asking the questions that will create an impactful outcome. Cognitive augmentation underscores the supportive role of the technology, and business leaders will need to change the brains of “responders” to seek out predictions that will prevent the problem from ever occurring.
I’ve picked up a couple of other pointers from Limitless — like separating from all my devices for 30 minutes a day to just let my mind wander. I’m paying attention to exercise and eating more brain food and getting good sleep. I’m thinking differently about my passion and using it to find my purpose. Somehow, it’s comforting right now to know that the brain I was born with is not the brain I’m stuck with. In fact, the potential for the brain is limitless.