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Thought Leaders

Interview with Dan Pink  

 conducted by Karen Elmhirst, HR.com

 

The following interview with Dan Pink is a condensed version of HR.com's live, one-hour Thought Leader interview by Karen Elmhirst, HR.com's Leadership analyst.

 

 

Daniel H. Pink is the author of A Whole New Mind, the groundbreaking guide to surviving, thriving and finding meaning in an outsourced, automated, upside down world. His first book, Free Agent Nation, about the growing ranks of people who work for themselves, was a Washington Post non-fiction bestseller and business bestseller in the U.S., Canada, and Japan.

 

Dan is a contributing editor at Wired. His articles on business and technology have also appeared in The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, Fast Company, and other publications. A popular speaker, Dan has lectured on work, business, and economic transformation to corporate, association and university audiences around the world. He’s provided analysis on dozens of television and radio broadcasts – including CNBC’s “Power Lunch,” ABC’s “World News Tonight,” NPR’s “Morning Edition,” and American Public Media’s “Marketplace.” And, as an independent business consultant, he’s advised start-up ventures and Fortune 100 companies on recruiting, business trends, and work practices.

 

A free agent himself, Dan held his last real job in the White House, where he served from 1995 to 1997 as chief speechwriter to Vice President Al Gore. He’s also worked as an aide to U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich, an economic policy staffer in the U.S. Senate, a legal researcher in India and a latrine builder in Botswana. He has his law degree, and to his lasting joy, he has never practiced law. He lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife and their three young children.

 

 


KE: Dan, the subtitle of your book is “Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age.” Tell us about the significant shift that is taking place all around us.

 

DP: The scales are tilting. It used to be that there was a certain set of abilities that were necessary to get ahead in the world at large and in the world of business. They tended to be linear, logical, left-brained, sequential, SAT, spreadsheet abilities. Those abilities are still absolutely necessary, but they are no longer sufficient. The scales are tilting to put more emphasis on a set of abilities that we haven’t taken seriously enough. Those skills include artistry, empathy and seeing the big picture. Those are the abilities that I think matter the most right now and are going to matter even more as the years go on.

 

KE: What are the forces responsible for this move to an age that you describe as “High Concept, High Touch”?

 

DP: There are three in particular that we can talk about: Abundance, Asia and Automation. Those three combined are tilting the scales away from the left-brained, sequential abilities and more towards the right-brained, artistic, empathic abilities.

 

Our brains are divided in half, the right hemisphere and the left. The left hemisphere is logical, sequential, analytical and rational. The right hemisphere is holistic and is more about synthesis than analysis; it is about context rather than text. It offers us a very good metaphor. The abilities that used to get you ahead were more characteristic of the left hemisphere of the brain and the abilities that matter the most now are more characteristic of the right hemisphere of the brain. These three forces are pushing us in this direction.  These three things are big, inexorable, Meta forces that are tilting the scales away from one set of abilities towards another.

 

KE: Tell us about the force of abundance.

 

DP: The level of material well being in our country is enormous. We live in a country where we have more automobiles than we do licensed drivers. You see it in home ownership and in the standard of living, which has more than tripled in the last 50 years. What that has done is changed the world of work and changed the competitive logic of business in some significant ways. Today, it is hard to sell a product, service or experience that is simply functional; it also has to have some kind of broader, aesthetic, emotional or spiritual appeal. That is why you have Target selling Isaac Mizrahi clothes. Even the most mundane utilitarian objects have been turned into objects of desire. That capacity to appeal not only to the functional side of products, services and experiences but also to the aesthetic, emotional and spiritual side is mandatory now. It is not just this ornamental extra nicety; it is essential for succeeding in business today. Those kinds of abilities are not the more logical, linear abilities. They are more about storytelling and design.

There is something very remarkable going on in this country. If you ask people if they are satisfied with their lives or jobs, you have a stagnant line. We have gotten richer and richer but we haven’t gotten happier. In the gap between rising prosperity and stagnating satisfaction is this widespread pursuit of meaning, purpose and transcendence. I think it has become an important part of business. It is a hugely important part of our broader culture. It explains why Oprah is a cultural phenomenon and it explains why The Purpose Driven Life is a best-selling book. In the U.S. there are 10 million people meditating and 15 million people doing yoga. The idea of doing something transcendent and seeking meaning and purpose has become something that is for the middle class as well as the upper class. Those abilities have become so pervasive in business that they are forcing anyone who wants to thrive in the business world to understand the emotional and aesthetic side of products and services and experiences. I would estimate that 99.9% of homes in North America have electric lighting in their homes, yet candles are a $2.4 billion business. There is no rational, logical reason for that. It is all about meaning and purpose and beauty and spirituality.

 

KE: Let’s move now to the second factor, which is Asia.

 

DP: By Asia, I am referring to offshoring and outsourcing. In India, an employee of a software company might make $14,000 a year, whereas in North America, he or she would be paid about $50,000 a year.

 

Offshoring, I think, is monumentally over-hyped in the short-term. The number of jobs lost to offshoring so far has been relatively small. In India you have a billion people. If you take a small percentage of a billion people you have some pretty significant numbers. If 15% of India’s population hits the middle class, you have 150 million people, which is larger than the whole U.S. workforce. The cost of communication with India is free and you also have 100 million plus people who speak English. You add up a talented workforce, well educated, English-speaking and connected for free and you have something very significant. What it means over time is that any routine work that can be reduced to a script, a spec sheet or a formula will increasingly disappear from this country in the same way that routine mass production work disappeared from this country a generation ago. That means that basic accounting, basic financial analysis, basic computer programming will disappear from this country. That is the kind of work that relies on the left-brain. If that kind of work goes overseas, then people in North America and Western Europe will have to do things that these talented folks overseas can’t do cheaper. That tends to be more of these right-brained activities I’ve mentioned.

 

The third force is automation. Many Americans remember the John Henry story. He had strength that surpassed any other human being. His job on the railroads in the early stages of America’s industrial development was to take a hammer and smash through mountains to create tunnels for the

These are the three key questions that people need to ask both at the level of the individual and at the level of the firm.

They need to look at what they are doing and ask themselves:

Can someone overseas do it cheaper?

Can a computer do it faster?

Is what I’m selling in demand in an age of abundance?

trains. The story is that one day a guy came to the work camp with a steam drill and the stream drill could crash through mountains faster than any human being, even John Henry. Of course, no one believed him so they decided to have a race with the machine on one side and John Henry on the other side to see who could bore through the mountain faster. As the story goes, John Henry and the machine were struggling through the mountain each ahead in turn and at the end John Henry bursts ahead and wins the race but he drops dead afterwards.in America. It is a melancholy story about how machines can do certain things better than people

can. As a result, some level of human dignity was lost and I think we are seeing that again in this

new era. I think Gary Casparov is the modern day John Henry. He is perhaps the greatest chess player of his generation, perhaps the greatest chess plNow chess isn’t an entirely logical, linear left brained activity but it is pretty close. In the 1980’s computer programmers started writing programs that could play chess and back then Casparov said that no computer could beat him. Casparov can look at a chessboard and in a matter of minutes come up with eight or 10 scenarios but in the same amount of time a computer can come up with a few hundred million. It is no longer a fair fight. Computers and software can replicate certain human abilities in much the same way that the steam drill could replicate John Henry’s muscle. Today we are seeing more and more machines duplicate or augment the human left-brain. If you are an accountant you face competition not only from the cheaper accountant in India but also from software like TurboTax. Certain kinds of accounting are routine and that is a danger word in this type of economy. We are seeing white-collar work for the first time succumbing to the pressures of this type of automation. It is much, much harder to automate right-brain abilities.

 

KE: You provide three questions in your book that you suggest each person ask at both the individual and the organizational level.  Please walk us through the questions.

 

DP: These are the three key questions that people need to ask both at the level of the individual and at the level of the firm. They need to look at what they are doing and ask themselves:

1.    Can someone overseas do it cheaper?

2.    Can a computer do it faster?

3.    Is what I’m selling in demand in an age of abundance?

Obviously, jobs and lives are complex and it impossible to have three perfect questions that provide all the answers, but I think this is pretty close. These first two questions are particularly critical for HR professionals to be asking. There is a huge amount of automation in administrative compliance and a lot of that work is already going overseas. You need to be able to do something that computers can’t automate and can’t be done overseas. That means you need more sophisticated interviewing skills, more sophisticated talent assessment and it requires very good emotional intelligence and empathic skills in being able to talk to people.

 

KE: So, what does it take for a person to be highly successful in this new Conceptual Age?

 

DP:  Based on my research I have found that there are six key abilities that matter the most and largely satisfy the three-part test listed above. They are: design, story, symphony, empathy, play and meaning.

 

Design is a combination of utility and significance. It has to work but it also has to do something more than work. It goes well beyond physical tangible products. Everything is designed. There is the design of the organization itself, the design of the physical space where people work, and in a bigger sense, we are the designers of our own individual lives. We want a life that has utility and significance. We want to be able to pay our bills but we also want something more. Having that design sensibility in ones own life is enormously important. You don’t have to be a great artist to be effective at design, but I think design literacy is mandatory in business today.

 

KE: Tell us what you mean by “story.”

 

DP: We live in a world of ubiquitous and free facts, thanks to Google and the Web. Something that is free has relatively no economic value so what becomes more important in this world of ubiquitous free facts is to put facts in context and deliver them with emotional impact, which is what stories do. You now see stories being folded into things like leadership training, knowledge management and things that you wouldn’t expect.

 

You see story being incorporated into marketing as a form of product differentiation. You can buy something as mundane as rice cakes and find the story of the family who made them on the back of the package. As a product differentiator, as an element of leadership, as a form of knowledge management, story is becoming much more important in business. Our brains are wired for narrative and as human beings, we often see the world as a series of episodes rather than as a set of logical propositions. For some reason, the business parlance has resisted stories, thinking that they are not serious, but that is changing. They are becoming more important.

 

KE: Let’s talk briefly about symphony and empathy.

 

DP: In business we tend to be obsessed with focus, and “symphony” is almost the exact opposite of that. Symphony is the ability to see the big picture, connect the dots; to combine disparate things to create something the world didn’t know it was missing. In a world where the piecemeal parts of work can be outsourced or automated there is a greater premium on being able to put it together. There is a study out there about star performers in organizations. They gave star performers in different organizations a series of cognitive tests to try to crack the code of what it means to be a star performer. It turned out that almost nothing had a correlation to being a star performer. Some of them were good at math and some of them weren’t, some had wide vocabularies and some of them didn’t. The one thing where there was a tight correlation was in their ability to see the big picture. That turns out to be the signature ability of many of these star performers. The same is true for entrepreneurs. Self-made millionaires are four times more likely than the general population to be dyslexic. Why is that? People who are dyslexic have an excruciatingly difficult time with some left-brain activities and as a result, they over-compensate and become very good at big picture thinking.

 

Empathy is another thing we haven’t taken seriously enough in business. Empathy is the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes, see with their eyes and feel with their heart. It is important in one dimension because it makes you a better, more fulfilled and generous person. In a hardheaded way, empathy is also very difficult to outsource and automate. It turns out to be extremely important in a whole range of professions. Obviously in the healthcare there is ample evidence that empathy helps patients get better. You also see empathy being very valuable in something like sales. The highest performing salespeople often test very well on measures of empathy because the best salespeople are interested in building relationships, understanding where people are coming from, and solving problems. Empathy also turns out to be very important for designers. Regardless of whether you are designing a typeface, or a product, you need to put yourself in the users’ shoes and understand what it would be like to be them using your product, service, or experience.  I think empathy is one of the most exciting and interesting abilities today.

 

KE: I was happy to see “play” on your list. You talk a lot in your book about laughter. Tell us about its importance.

 

DP: We tend to obsess in business over seriousness and lack of frivolity but it turns out that play and humor and joyfulness are very valuable business skills. Here is a quote from a Harvard Business Review study a few years ago that confirms common sense: “More than four decades of study by various researchers confirms some common sense wisdom.  Humor, used skillfully, greases the management wheels.  It reduces hostility, deflects criticism, relieves tension, improves morale, and helps communicate difficult messages (Fabio Sala, Harvard Business Review, Sept. 2003).” It is not some kind of ornamental thing; it is fairly fundamental to a leader’s skill set. There is ample evidence of the physiological and psychological benefits of laughter.

 

The final ability is meaning. In a world of abundance and rising prosperity just simply showing up and getting a paycheck is not enough anymore. It’s not enough for the people who run companies anymore either. People are putting a new emphasis on meaning and purpose. Baby boomers are realizing that they are not going to be around forever. They have more of their lives behind them than they do in front of them and that can concentrate the mind. They are asking themselves when they are going to lead a life of meaning, purpose and significance. If you look at some of the language coming from corporate America, it is absolutely fascinating. This an interesting quote from Google: “We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served -- as shareholders and in all other ways -- by a company that does good things for the world even if we forgo some short-term gains . . . We aspire to make Google an institution that makes the world a better place. (Letter from the Founders: An Owner’s Manual for Google Shareholders).” Making the world a better place is a transcendent mission and it is one of the reasons that Google is able to attract such incredible talent. In a world where talented people need organizations less than organizations need talented people they need to offer something more. It is not just these funky companies that are thinking this way; GE also has some interesting things to say. Jeff Immelt, the CEO of GE, says, “If you want to be a great company today, you have to be a good company.  The reason why people come to work for GE is that they want to be about something larger than themselves. (Washington Post 11/14/04).” One can argue whether GE offers something transcendent to their employees, but the idea that people come to work for something bigger than them is very significant. Throughout many companies there is a greater emphasis on meaning beyond quarterly earnings and turning a profit because those are the kinds of places that great people want to work.

 

KE: Many of those in our listening audience are probably thinking, “Well, I came into HR because of many of the qualities you’re describing, but I’ve been told that I need to get much more strategic, much more bottom-line business focused.” Dan, what is your comment on that?

 

DP: The thing is that you need both right-brained and left-brained abilities to get ahead. If you only have right-brained abilities you are going to be a lovely creative person who doesn’t have a job. I think that HR people have a unique ability to cross those boundaries. You have to be able to show hardheaded return on right-brained stuff. You have to be literate in the left-brain language of numbers. You can show logical, quantitative benefits from emphasizing these right-brain abilities. It is not a trade-off. One way to boost the bottom line is to make greater investments in these sorts of abilities that are becoming much more economically urgent.

 

Dan Pink will be appearing as a keynote speaker at HR.com’s Employers of Excellence Conference taking place September 25 – 27 in Phoenix. Also, to find out more about Dan’s work, we encourage you to read his book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age.”

 

Reprinted with permission from HR.com.

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