What Is Your Obligation?

At the Agile 2017 conference last week, I volunteered for “Agile Therapy,” a chance to discuss a topic of your choice for 20 minutes with an experienced coach. I was the coach. Just in case you weren’t sure.

One of the people who came to me asked about automation. We had a wide-ranging discussion which included these questions, although I am sure I am paraphrasing:

  • If we know that our automation will put people out of work, should we automate?
  • What do we do with all the people who will no longer have jobs?
  • If we have self-driving cars, how does that change the economy and all the people who make cars and drive cars and buses?

There were more questions and I’ll stop there.

I am part of the automation “problem.” Back in 1984, I wrote software to add the glue to a windshield and inspect the glue before the robot put the windshield into the car. The factory already had the robot. The problem was the application of the glue and the inspection. Up until my work, people added the glue and inspected their work. And, car windshields leaked. Not too many, but enough. That was the reason for the machine vision application.

I happened to speak with a factory worker. He was not happy I was there. He told me I was putting him out of a job. I asked him if this was his life’s dream: to apply glue and inspect it. “Of course not!” he said. I asked him if the company offered retraining. He said yes. I asked if he was taking advantage of it. No, not yet. I suggested he rethink that and think of other options.

I think of that guy. We were about the same age—late 20’s. I had a good paying, knowledge-based job with a bright future. He had a reasonable pay and an uncertain future. He already had two kids, I had just become engaged. As we spoke, I told him the difference between our jobs was a matter of education. He was smart enough and capable enough to learn something new. He didn’t have to like computers (I can’t believe I said that), but he might want to consider something else.

The real question is the meta question: What is our obligation as we automate more and more jobs away? Many blue and white collar jobs are shadows of what they used to be, even ten years ago, such as travel agents, bank tellers, and airline counter people.

What is our obligation as a society to help other people? Is creating a supportive society something we owe others? Is it help determining what choices they have? Is it some other way to help people be adaptable and build their resilience?

I can’t predict the future. As we automate more, I can’t predict what other jobs will arise. However, I am excited to see the future. That’s what I said to the nice guy who asked me this question.

You read this blog because you believe in adaptable problem-solving leadership, even if “only” for your own life. I thought I would ask you. I’m curious about what you might say.

That is the question this week: What is your obligation? (And, feel free to change your context.)

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