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Pay attention to the ingenuity technology is throwing up

Photo by Isaac Mehegan on Unsplash

We were driving back home from the other side of Nairobi. I tapped Google Maps on and connected it to the car’s display. It showed the route home, and indicated that the journey would take 31 minutes.

We decided to keep track of this. The road was clear of traffic pretty much where the program said it would be; and it was heavily congested exactly where projected. We followed the recommended route and arrived home in, wait for it, exactly 31 minutes.

Now, mapping programs have been around for many years, so this is not exactly earth-shaking news. Software works as intended. Meh, you say. But my point is today is different. As we interact with technology and let it pervade our everyday lives, we tend to become numbed to the sheer ingenuity of what is happening.

Think about it: a company headquartered thousands of kilometres away is able to tell you exactly how long it will take for you to get home in your city. It is able to measure accurately the traffic situation where you are, without being able to see you. It does not have any cameras trained on you. A human voice gives you turn-by-turn instructions as you go, but there is no human being involved in guiding you home in this entire journey. The whole thing is done by computers connecting with your smartphone and locating it; doing the same with all the other thousands of connected smartphones on your route; and then packaging the result of all that data-gathering into a simple-to-use service that tells which is your best route home, and how much time you need to allow.

Applause, please. Not just for Google, but for all those brilliant minds that can figure how to pull off near-miraculous things to help ease all of our lives. Do note, though: a series of brainwaves and executions were needed. Someone way back needed to have a lightbulb moment to say, hey, if everyone these days has a device that they move around with all of the time, that’s always connected to the internet, what could we do with that?

Then: what commonplace problem could all that data solve? Then: how could we package all that data and create simple interfaces that an idiot could use? Then: how could we actually do this great thing in a sustainable way and make a pile of money in the process?

That’s the thought process a great leader in charge of a top team goes through. These things don’t happen by magic; they are brought to life by creative thinking; by exhaustive testing; by painstaking execution. Later on, it becomes easy to forget the miracle. But think back: a decade or two ago could you imagine a computer guiding you home, telling you how to avoid traffic, talking to you the whole way, and getting the journey time pretty much spot on?

Of course, humans have their dark side too, and somewhere along the line some corruption occurs and the data often gets used nefariously as well. But that’s the human condition. If you run an organization or a business, or aspire to, I have three lessons from my mapping program for you.

First: always look at what’s wrong with the world as it is. Which inconveniences have never been solved? What solution are the people around you crying out for? What kind of product or service would spread like wildfire? Which dream can be turned into affordable reality?

Second, never, ever take your eye off the possibilities technology might throw up in your line of work. Don’t be the one stuck on the donkey-cart when the world has moved on to the automobile; don’t be the one delightedly driving the petrol car when the world is going to go self-driving electric. Read, follow, investigate widely. Talk to the weirdos and the geeks and the seers.

Lastly, invest in smart people. Don’t be the only clever one in the room, or even the cleverest one. Pretty much all of the remarkable tech innovations we have all enjoyed, from maps to mobile money to on-call transportation, have come from teams riffing together, from connections being made across boundaries, from a sense of shared mission. If you have great ambitions, you’ll need great brains and great team spirit.

So pay great attention to your people, and their tools. Your job as leader is to be the conductor. The music will come from the players and their instruments.

(Sunday Nation, 13 January 2018)

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