The Best Thoughts About the United Airlines Fiasco

This is the best thinking I’ve seen about the United Airlines fiasco. Related, see my blog: The Singularity.

The piece below paints a vivid picture of a culture that demands conformity and compliance from employees. The culture robs people of their freedom, their creativity and their ability to solve problems in the moment. The people try to be machines. But they are not  machines. The pressure to be something other than themselves sucks the life out of them. Had the employees felt valued, involved and informed and had they felt empowered to think creatively and to put the customer first, I believe this incident would not have happened. I thought we had learned these lessons in the 90’s. This is a failure of leadership at the highest levels of United.

From Fast Future Publishing:

“We think the biggest casualties of the recent highly publicized United Airlines service failure may not be the airline, its shareholders or an under-siege CEO. Instead, we believe those who could experience the biggest long-term challenges and consequences are the people running large-scale digital transformation programmes, their technology and implementation partners, and those heralding artificial intelligence (AI) as the future of business.  At the human and operational levels, the investigations, court cases, trials by TV and social media inquests will rumble on. Everyone wants to get to underlying truth of why Dr David Dao was violently yanked from his seat on United Express Flight 3411 from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Louisville Kentucky on Sunday April 9th. The full commercial repercussions will take a while to work through. At one point, over US$250 million was wiped off the value of United’s stock, and it could fall further should customers choose to fly with other carriers in protest. The debate will also intensify about how long United’s CEO Oscar Munoz can stay in post before either falling on his sword or being bumped by his board.

Image Credit: Staresattheworld
Anyone who has the misfortune of flying United – even in the big bucks cabins – knows that sense of being on board a prison ship where you have to keep the wardens happy for fear of verbal reprimand or punishment. Sit anywhere near the galley and listen to the crew talking – in 15 minutes you’ll hear all the evidence you need of what’s going wrong with the airline.  United’s disillusioned staff are the embodiment of a business that prioritises systems over service, control over customers, subservience over solutions, and profits over people. They are the classic example of an organisation behaving like the machines it employs and seeing staff and customers simply as inputs to be transformed into outputs in the form of profits.

In the grand scheme of things, the incident raises massive warning signs for those embarking on flights of corporate transformation to an anticipated digital nirvana. Around the world, medium to large enterprises are spending hundreds of millions – and in some cases more than a billion – US dollars on digital transformation and AI automation programmes. These are primarily designed to create a hyper-efficient, low cost “algorithmic business” and replace humans wherever possible with smart and adaptive software. The appeal is that these shiny new systems will work 24/7/365, learn, adapt, respond consistently, never have an off day or a day off, and service peaks in business demand at no extra cost.

However, the warning bells should be ringing, the United case highlights what happens when we place too much store in technology. In this case, there was no real AI involved, just a set of rigid rules embedded in software and a removal of almost all freedom, capacity and incentive for staff to use their own initiative. Anyone – literally anyone – could have told United of the PR disaster that would ensue in today’s smartphone enabled and social media fuelled environment if they chose to send police onto the plane to forcibly remove Dr Dao. Had the United ground staff been able to use common sense and felt the courage to do so, they would have put their own staff on another flight or hired a limo to get them to Louisville, both of which would almost certainly have cost less than the US$800 plus accommodation that they were offering to each of the four passengers they wanted to remove. United could also have offered progressively higher levels of deplaning compensation until someone took the bait – suggestions range from US$1,000 – 1,300 as to what that figure might have been. United’s system doesn’t appear to have been equipped to make such choices or offer sensible suggestions, and the airline staff involved certainly didn’t look like they felt empowered to do so.

Image Credit: Denver Post
This represents a massive red flag for organisational digital change programs and those pursuing “employee” light AI-first automation strategies. The risk is that we create hollowed out businesses that are too rigid and incapable of responding to both predictable variations and truly unforeseen challenges. Embarking on an intense automation path actually requires that we give more autonomy and authority to the remaining humans in the organisation. They need to act fast and sensitively to problems, genuinely putting the customer first – rather than the system and the rules. The test is would you personally feel happy with the resolution on offer if you were the customer on the receiving end? Failure to do so could lead to a lot more United-style problems for many organisations. The United case will be a wake-up call for many firms and could lead to a slowing, suspension, or even cancellation of their digital change initiatives as they take stock to ensure they are not automating themselves off the playing field.

On the positive side, United and others will hopefully be forced to look at and change the nature and tone of their patently insensitive and seemingly inhuman machine generated corporate responses.  The world can see through double speak, as evidenced by the sheer scale of the vitriol directed at the airline, the number of United mocking advertisements from competitors, and the level of ridicule being heaped upon CEO Munoz and his team for the meaningless corporate mumbo jumbo they’ve been spouting on social media, in statements and in media interviews. These are all warnings of what happens when we become the machine.

So, how can we avoid “doing a United” and crash landing our digital transformation programmes? The first step is to be really clear on why we are doing the digital change or AI project. If cost is the primary driver, then we can pretty much guarantee some service failures of the “United kind”, if not always so public. Even though there may well be cost savings, the primary driver has to be delivery of a better, faster, more seamless, less frustrating, and more responsive service to customers. Get the service design right before we build the systems and the cost savings will follow. Secondly, we must look at our investment in people and their capacity to solve problems. United’s latest bout of self-harm highlights a real imperative to develop staff who can think on their feet, truly empathise with customers and come up with creative solutions that get it right when and where it counts – even if there’s an associated short-term cost of doing so for the organisation.

Image Credit: Denver Post
The more the rules and the process design are embedded in the system, the more important it will be for staff to be able to act fast and decisively at the point of customer interaction, especially when the technology fails or throws up patently dumb solutions in the prevailing context. This is going to take a lot of courage for staff to do this rather than choosing the “United Way” and simply following the rule book – employees will need to see, feel, smell, and touch the organisation’s commitment to protect them if they do the right thing for the customer. As organisations automate more deeply and reduce headcounts more savagely, the competition for the few remaining jobs will become more intense. This is likely to create an immense reluctance to take risks to bypass the rules and show initiative unless the firm can provide tangible and believable proof that these are the new winning behaviours that will help you keep your job and earn promotions. Admittedly, such opportunities might be in shorter supply in the highly-automated enterprise.

The biggest challenge lies in changing the leadership mindset. Many technology programmes are currently predicated on the notion that we’ll have far greater transparency and control over everything that happens – everywhere and at all times – the control freak’s utopia! The reality is that with AI, we cannot as yet see how these complex learning algorithms make their decisions and the internal rules they create and evolve, so we will be placing a level of blind faith in the systems. Secondly, the things that truly differentiate us and set us apart from our competitors will not be the clever choices made by our super smart algorithms: The true moments that make a difference will come from the stories of our people going above and beyond to serve the customer when the system wouldn’t allow it or simply failed to do the right thing. The irony is that, almost inevitably, the thinning of corporate headcounts will go too far too fast, and the few staff that remain will not have the time to provide detailed reports of how they did the right thing – perhaps their social media accounts will be the best place to find that out.

Almost inevitably, more attention gets paid to the big-ticket technology expenditure than the transformation of mindsets, enablement of empowerment and development of deep capabilities amongst staff. We often see and hear firms proudly proclaiming their investments in technology transformation as their commitment to a bright digital future for their business. In contrast, it’s a rarity to see organisations making equally proud statements about their investment in people. That pretty much tells us all we need to know about where the “United moments” are likely to occur.

There are many lessons that can be learnt from Dr Dao’s experience, not least to think twice before flying with United. However, perhaps the most transferable teaching point is to stand back and re-evaluate our digital transformation and AI-enablement initiatives to make sure that we are using the technology in genuine service of our people. We need to ensure that we are equipping staff to make empowered decisions to act in the best interests of the paying customer. In short, and perhaps paradoxically, the real goal of digital transformation and automation is to create a very human business.”

The Singularity

The human being of 200 years from now will be more different from the human being of today than the human being of today is from Neanderthals or chimpanzees. Yuval Harari (paraphrased) to Ezra Klein, Feb. 28, 2017.

Thomas Friedman wrote in Thanks for Being Late that the rate of change of major new technologies is more than twice as fast as our ability to absorb the changes and will only grow faster. We cannot stop the technology that transforms our lives. We have to learn to change faster or be left behind.

Tristan Harris, former Google product manager, on 60 Minutes (April 9, 2017) said that Silicon Valley designs our smart phones to addict us to them. We are being programmed, usually without our awareness. Gradually, choice by choice, we give up our thoughts, feelings and actions to the machines.

Yuval Harari wrote in Homo Deus that technology will put masses of people out of work. They will be unemployed and unemployable. He wrote that we may have to pay people to not work and drug them to make them happy and give them advanced video games to play all day.

We can see the beginnings of these trends today:

Nicholas N. Eberstadt wrote in Our Miserable 21st Century in Commentary Magazine that the opioid epidemic of pain pills and heroine has ravaged and shortened lives from coast to coast.

He wrote that nearly half of all prime working-age male labor-force dropouts—approximately seven million men—take pain medication daily—paid for mostly by Medicaid. These men don’t use their free time helping around the home or volunteering in their communities. Instead they spend up to 2,000 hours a year watching their electronic devices—TV, DVDs, Internet, smartphones, etc. That is their full-time job. We can imagine Harari’s future: millions of un-working men in the prime of life, out of work and unemployable, sitting stoned in front of screens. What does this say about the future of Democracy?

I wrote this essay in July, 2005. How does it fit our world of 2017?

Quotes from scientists:

Those of us alive today, over the course of our lifetimes, will morph ourselves into machines. We are trying to build robots that have properties of living systems….In just 20 years the boundary between fantasy and reality will be rent asunder. Rodney Allen Brooks (Director of the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT and author of Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us.)

…If we could make better human beings by knowing how to add genes, why shouldn’t we? Gregory Stock (director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at the School of Medicine of the University of California)

Biological species almost never survive encounters with superior species. Hans Moravec (Carnegie Mellon University)

The emergence in the early twenty-first century of a new form of intelligence on Earth that can compete with, and ultimately significantly exceed, human intelligence will be a development of greater import than any of the events that have shaped human history. Ray Kurzweil (inventor and author of Spiritual Machines)

Are they mad scientists or prophets?

You decide.

Genetics, robotics, and nanotechnology fed by the exponentially increasing power and speed of information technology intertwine and multiply one another in symbiotic relationships. They are poised to rupture, alter, and perhaps even destroy the fabric of human nature—our minds, souls, mortality, consciousness, personalities, our imperfection, our physical makeup, our freedom of choice, and the indefinable that makes us who we are.

The machines thrive.

Today computing power rides a curve of exponential change unprecedented in human history, and the exponential change itself will continue to accelerate. Moore’s Law states that the power of information technology will double every 18 months. In 2002, the 27th doubling occurred with a billion-transistor chip. A doubling means that the next step is as tall as all the previous steps put together. Twenty-seven consecutive doublings of anything man-made remains unprecedented in human history—until now. The growth curve goes straight up. The potential systemic impact of such power translated to new technologies (genetics, robotics, nanotechnology) and on all of life staggers the mind.

When Moore’s Law exhausts itself it most likely will be followed by a new technological paradigm that will grow even faster. There may be no limits.

We are on the verge of an almost unimaginable future: what scientists call the Singularity. At the point of Singularity technology evolves so rapidly that our everyday world no longer makes sense—we enter a massive neutral zone—a place of no rules. We probably cannot escape this “perfect storm” of chaos; we must go through it.

Author Vernor Vinge wrote of the essence of the Singularity: A super humanity–artificially created. Soon machines smarter than the human brain will be created according to Vinge (See Vernor Vinge on the Singularity available various places on the internet). Ray Kurzweil, author of The Spiritual Machines ( wrote that the implications of this change include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence and immortal software-based humans.

As entities with greater than human intelligence are created most intelligence on the planet will become nonbiological and changes in all other aspects of life will accelerate dramatically—including the more rapid creation of even more intelligent entities on a shorter time scale. We will not be able to think and absorb fast enough to keep up with the changes.

Vinge wrote that this change will be comparable to the rise of human life on earth. This will be a unique transition with profound systemic implications for humanity fraught with unpredictability and unintended consequences.

Will we create a new heaven on earth with all problems solved? Or will a new hell on earth emerge where the technology goes bad and the machines rule and humans become their slaves? Or will life continue as it has in the past—imperfect and creative–just with new complexities to cope with?

As I write this essay I am reading the books, Radical Evolution by Joel Garreau and Frankenstein by Dean Koontz—the first non-fiction–the second fiction. As I alternate between the books I have trouble distinguishing the facts from the fiction. The boundaries between fiction and reality blur and foreshadow the approach of the Singularity where the technologies of genetics, information technology, robotics, and nanotechnology merge.

Koontz described Victor Frankenstein who wanted to live forever and save the world from the imperfections of spirit and emotion—including love—unnecessary in a purely material world without spirituality. Some might call him mad. Others would call him driven, brilliant, and totally absorbed in filling the holes within himself by eliminating them in future models of the human being.

Koontz’s scientist creates soulless beings that look like real people and programs them genetically without moral dimensions. Their minds fill with information downloaded from computers. The live out predetermined lives in service of the scientist with no ability to control their own destinies. The machines of flesh become the successor race.

Garreau, the non-fiction writer, described a world of telekinetic monkeys that can move distant objects via their thoughts, fictional super-heroes whose imaginary powers are now real or almost real and “better” human beings artificially enhanced by machines. The telekinetic monkey (near telepathic) foreshadows future human telepathy, the imaginary heroes become soldiers who heal themselves, can go a week without sleep, and can run at Olympic sprint speeds for 15 minutes on one breath of air.

Garreau described machine enhanced people of many potential breeds who live for hundreds of years. Nanobots (nano robots) the size of human blood cells cruise their bloodstreams and attack pathogens, build new cells, and grow new organs. People separate into the enhanced—those who choose to be altered–and the naturals—those who choose to not be altered. Will the naturals become the pets or the slaves of the enhanced?

Parents could potentially order their new child gene by gene over the internet to be delivered to them on their schedule. Who or what would this child be? What would be its connection to the past, to a family, to those who come later? And what would happen when, a few months later, even more fully enhanced genetic models become available that make this state of the art child obsolete? Would the child ever forgive those who created her? Science fiction has merged with the vision of science.

Koontz’s creatures yearn to feel and to be happy like the inferior humans they were created to replace. They know they lack something within themselves despite their “perfection.” This yearning threatens the scientist’s control and leads to unintended chaos as the machines break the rules they were programmed to follow and genetic creation goes astray. Could super-intelligent machines in our “real” world do the same and turn against their creators?  In Garreau and Koontz, fact and fantasy merge.

When Garreau asked a researcher to reflect on the meaning and the consequences of his work, the reply was, “That’s above my pay grade.” People are changing our world and toying with our human nature without much thought as to what they are doing. They are having too much fun to consider that the unintended consequences might be bad. This is irresponsible. It remains up to you and me to set the initial conditions for this development, whatever it may be, and to hold creators accountable for their creations. For we do care about what “not so fun” things could happens to our humanity.

Some believe that to save our humanity and even our species, we must stop this technological development. Scientist Bill Joy wrote: “…We are on the cusp of the further perfection of extreme evil….” (See Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us in the April 2000 issue of Wired magazine) I believe that we cannot stop or control this development. People always seek to improve themselves and their lives. This will not change.

If we push development underground it will only free the technology from ethical and moral considerations. The technology and its impact on our lives and the potential impact on the human soul will not be stopped. What development can happen, will happen—our human nature drives us.

Others believe that the future technology will lead to a heaven on earth with all problems finally solved. We become God and create Heaven. Kurzweil: “We see exponentially greater love.” I believe that these are the beliefs of the pseudoinnocent (see Pamphlet 50). Pseudoinnocence colludes with evil as it denies the imperfection of human beings—artificially enhanced or not.

Evil will continue to exist, and villains will continue to utilize whatever means are available to them to meet their sinister objectives. The insane, immoral, immature, and irresponsible among us will sell their souls for the currency of the day, as they always have, and there will continue to be people of weak spirit and character who will use technology to exploit others. I do not believe there will be man-made gods or a heaven on earth.

For the past decade many have railed against the mechanistic world view and the devastating unintended consequences of a world view that dehumanizes people. I’ve spoken and written of the conscious evolution of our humanity for years (wholeness, authenticity, relationships) because I believe our spiritual development is crucial to reversing the environmental mess we’ve created, which threatens our way of life. We can now add exponential technical development to the threats to our species. We need to pay attention.

Singularity or not, I see the potential for life to create differently than the technologically driven linear projections of heaven or hell—gods or devils. Instead of being led by technology, we can lead technology. To do so effectively we must accelerate our maturity as people and communities and bring forth a creative renaissance of relationships that will transform life on this planet.

The global transformation we are in has spiritual and technical elements. They must not compete or, I fear, the spiritual will be driven deeply underground. We must wisely manage the use of our technical genius. We must embrace the technology that threatens our humanity and outfox the creative dark side of human nature with the creative light of our humanity. We must use the very tools of our potential destruction to outwit those who would destroy our unique humanness in their grandiosity. We must absorb the technology into our greater life force. The spiritual must transcend the technical; people must transcend machines.

Can we preserve our species, retain our humanity, and become even more human in the face of unprecedented pressure and temptation to step outside of a caring and creative human nature? Can and will the good, well-intended people, who comprise the vast majority of people on this planet, find the inner courage and strength to say, “We must manage this wisely and holistically?” To do so we must catch up socially and culturally to our technical development so we can find solutions to problems faster. We must apply our deepest human values to this technology.

I believe that in the chaos of today’s world, if we wish to retain our human nature as we intuitively understand it, we must focus first on being whole, imperfect, and authentic people connected to one another by a shared vision for our collective future. This movement must leap willingly into an unknown future and see creative potential in uncertainty. We will evolve through our creativity, not technological determinism. The impact of such a focus would be profound.

Abraham Maslow wrote that to save our world we must create the “good person.” He defined the good person as:

The self-evolving person,

The fully human person,

The self-actualizing person….

Long ago Confucius wrote that the cultivation of the person must be the root of everything else. Playwright Vaclav Havel wrote: “Transcendence is the only real alternative to extinction.” I believe that Havel, Maslow, and Confucius meant creativity and spirituality when they wrote of transcendence, human cultivation, and self-actualization, not people crossing over to be linear, literal, and dehumanized machines. They understood that each authentic life lived fully provides the diversity to insure the sustainability of humanity. I don’t care about being mechanically perfect; I care about being creatively imperfect.

Each of these great thinkers calls forth images of people who continually grow in complexity in a more natural way. The goal (for me) becomes to use the technology in our spiritual quests to realize our deepest sense of purpose and authenticity. We can deepen and expand our creativity, compassion, and connection with self, others, and nature. We can create meaning in our lives as free, responsible, and spiritual people. We can use the technology to help us do so. We can say “NO” to any technology that threatens who we are in our essential spiritual being and intimate connectedness to self, others, and nature.

Life is about heroic journeys. The human spirit that suffers in our world today must renew itself for the greatest challenge in our brief history on the planet Earth:

The critical challenge of our lifetime may well be to use explosive technical development to preserve and enhance our humanity rather than to have it destroyed by the mindless acceleration of technology without though as to the unintended consequences.

What are the technological lines we will not cross? How do we decide? Who decides?

I don’t know. I do know that we need deep and broad awareness and dialogue among people of the world.

I do believe that we must go forward into the unknown with care, caution, awareness, and thoughtfulness. We must plan, act, reflect, and adapt as we proceed. We have much to think about.

Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent New York Times article (July 27, 2005) that America’s most serious deficit today is a deficit of leaders who can talk about long-term problem-solving and the national interest. Leadership will not come from nationalistic politicians more concerned about re-election than our shared future on this planet or corporate leaders more concerned about riches than sustainability. Nor can the future of humanity be left to engineers, scientists, and technicians who do not want to be responsible or accountable for their creations.

You and I and all global citizens are responsible for the future. We get to choose who we will be in the future. We can be creative spiritually as well as creative technically. We can imagine and create the future we want. Or, as Friedman wrote, we can “Live wrong. Party on. Pay later.”

To be continued.

I wrote about and tried to teach consulting clients to learn how to change organizations faster as a competitive advantage 20 years ago. My management team and I talked about lifelong learning in the early 90’s. John Gardner wrote about lifelong learning in the 1960’s. Most have not paid attention.

Do we hear politicians talking about the issues of technology?

Trump and Trumpism are a dysfunctional denial of what is happening in America and globally. They can do great damage but they cannot stop the forces at play—unless they blow all of us up.

It appears that many of us are on the path to being victims of these transformations. We can choose differently. What happens is up to us.

We begin with awareness: Do we use technology as a tool to evolve our humanity or do we fall under its control and give up our attention one choice at a time? Do we set our own agendas or do we let the machines gradually control our attention, feelings and actions? Do we let smartphones and computer algorithms make our decisions for us? Do we continually learn and reinvent ourselves over and over again throughout our lives to avoid being unemployed and unemployable? Do we resist efforts to go backwards to decline and go forward into the unknown future boldly?

It is up to us.

I Am an Addict

Ok, I admit it. I am an addict. I am powerless and my life is unmanageable.

Let me tell you about it:

We had a power outage recently. I’ve never seen winds like the ones that blew through our neighborhood and uprooted trees, moved them across the roads, and planted them into the ground in new yards. Over half a million people in Minnesota were left powerless.

I  grew angry, anxious, and depressed. I came off as sullen, impatient and  irritable. I went silent, tossed and turned in bed, and woke up in the middle of the night sweating.

I had excessive energy: I worked out hard, doubled my walks, ate half the calories.

I was in withdrawal.

Finally, after 73 hours the lights came on.

At last I could feed my addiction.

I got on the Internet!

I felt better quickly.

How awful was not being connected?

We met neighbors we hadn’t introduced ourselves to in three years. We stood around in groups talking to one another. We helped each other out. We shared information and resources. We had the woman across the street over for dinner.

We re-introduced ourselves to an aspect of our humanity that we risk losing in this age of instant global connection and loss of local intimacy (see my post, The Singularity).

I have to go.

My technology anonymous meeting begins in 15 minutes.