I survived the robot apocalypse: Agile and the future of work

By Nick Butler

9 December 2019

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Ruka Yamakami is fighting the robot apocalypse by moving from accounts manager to Agile coach.

The jobs we do today will be wiped out by the robot apocalypse, a wave of automation changing the world of work for ever. But not all will perish. Learn how to develop the skills you need to survive the rise of the machines, and find out how one woman has beaten the bots.

Machines are coming for our jobs. Experts are divided on whether the information revolution will create more jobs than it destroys, but there’s no doubt that many of today’s jobs won’t be here tomorrow.

In their landmark study The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to automation, Oxford’s Michael Osborne and Carl Frey analysed which jobs were in the firing line. They calculated that 47 percent of total US employment was at risk of being automated. In New Zealand the figure is about the same, 46%, according to the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research.

Osborne and Frey looked at what computers do well and what they struggle with. Software has always been good at rote and rule-based tasks. Jobs that rely on these kinds of tasks will be the first to go. The rise of AI is extending this into pattern-matching — perception, classification and identification. These are next in line.

Wondering whether your job is in danger? You can check how at risk it is with tools like this one from the BBC:

Will a robot take your job?

Click the screenshot from the BBC's "Will a robot take your job?" tool to check your own job.

The robot apocalypse is already here

The effects of automation are already with us. Take Boost’s accounts manager Ruka Yamakami for example. She realised that the machines were already eating into her job.

“Accounting is very repetitive,” she says. “Everything is so automated. I don’t really need to use my brain much because Xero does it for me.”

It was starting to take the pleasure out of the role.

“It wasn’t really a challenge,” she says. “I was starting to feel redundant.”

So what can Ruka, and indeed anyone, do about this?

Skills to survive the robot apocalypse

Osborne and Frey ended their paper by summing up what we can do to keep our jobs. “For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.” Since then there have been all sorts of formulations of exactly what these skills are.

Training consultants Guthrie-Jensen put together a list of 10:

  1. Complex problem solving
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Creativity
  4. People management
  5. Coordinating with others
  6. Emotional intelligence
  7. Judgement and decision-making
  8. Service orientation
  9. Negotiation
  10. Cognitive flexibility

Pew Research came up with a different list. They argue that tough-to-teach intangible skills, capabilities and attributes will be most highly valued. These include:

  • emotional intelligence
  • curiosity
  • creativity
  • adaptability
  • resilience
  • critical thinking.

More recently, IBM’s MIT Watson lab, looking at the effect of AI, suggest that tasks that require grounding in intellectual skill and insight are increasing in value. They list:

  • common sense
  • judgment
  • intuition
  • creativity
  • spoken language.

Agile and the robot apocalypse

These various descriptions of the skills needed to survive the robot apocalypse have one thing in common. They are all skills you acquire and develop if you work in an Agile way. And that’s no coincidence.

Agile is a learning engine, predicated on the fact that humans are creative, social, problem-solving beings. You’ll get the best out of them if you make use of this rather than treating them like cogs in a machine.

You can see this in the Agile manifesto. Agile values:

  • individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • working solutions over comprehensive documentation
  • customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • responding to change over following a plan.

See what they did there? They stressed the things that humans do well.

How Agile builds these skills

Let’s take the Pew skills for example:

  • emotional intelligence
  • curiosity
  • creativity
  • adaptability
  • resilience
  • critical thinking

How do the Agile values relate to these skills?

By favouring individuals and interactions, Agile requires and develops emotional intelligence. The same goes for customer collaboration. Moreover, favouring individuals and interactions also recognises that humans burn out if you run them too hard for too long. So the system itself is resilient.

By favouring working solutions, Agile rewards curiosity, creativity and critical thinking. You take an empirical approach in which you’re constantly coming up with new solutions, new ways of working, and assessing how these can be improved.

And by favouring responding to change, Agile explicitly bakes in adaptability.

The Agile manifesto’s 12 principles — with their emphasis on things like face-to-face communication, building projects around motivated individuals and self-organising teams, and regular reflection and improvement — make the importance of these skills even clearer.

Building the skills with Scrum

An Agile framework like Scrum, for example, is set up to work those muscles. That’s because it builds the need for emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, adaptability, resilience and critical thinking into each of the Scrum roles and events.

The Product Owner analyses and prioritises customer needs. Then these are discussed and assessed with the Development Team in Sprint Planning and Backlog refining. The Development Team work together to come up with the best way to meet these needs. Each day, they discuss their progress in the Daily Scrum. The Scrum Master constantly reviews how smoothly the team is working together and intervenes if needed. At the end of each iteration, the team inspect the product in the Review and their processes in the Retrospective. The lessons they learn feed into the next iteration.

Agile is not anti-automation though. The Agile principle of maximising the work not done means that Agile is all about delivering more by doing less. So if a robot can do it, give it the job. Agile gives you the skill-set to adapt as robots change the nature of your role. Once you’ve developed the Agile mindset, you can apply these skills to any situation. This means you get to do the kind of creatively satisfying work that humans are good at.

Ruka vs. the robot apocalypse

This is just what Ruka Yamakami has found. She has moved out of accounting and is now an Agile Coach at Boost.

“I love working with people. I love the interaction,” she says. “In accounts, you don’t get that.”

She’s finding her new job much more satisfying.

“You’re dealing with people and everyone is different, so you have to tailor how you work to each project, each client.”

“I like to be creative,” she says, “and being an Agile Coach allows you to bring out your strengths.”

The future

Those of us who are already Agile shouldn’t be too smug though. Artificial Intelligence, by definition, involves machines doing things that only people could do before. So advances in AI will eat into the set of tasks which humans do better than machines.

And what happens when the robots go Agile?

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords*.

Robot waving in front of a mushroom cloud, symbolising the way automation will blow up the world of work. Image from Needpix.com, by TheDigitalArtist (pixabay.com)

Learn more

It just so happens that I know a good Agile training company. They’re called Boost. Here’s the Agile training they offer:

Agile training options

*“I for one welcome …” Know your meme

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