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Once all parties understand the motivation for the change, the tension can be reduced.

Pretty Darned Quick

That’s how fast companies can move when they use technology to manage human emotions.

By Winter Wright, Editor, Transform

The name says it all.

FixPDQ is a Shanghai-based start-up that promises to fix problems “Pretty Darned Quick.” Launched by Alistair Ritchie, a Scot who landed in China in 2007, its goal is straightforward: “to take the emotion out of problem-solving” in a way that gets everyone working together.

After stints at Morgan Stanley and other corporate jobs, Ritchie observed that fear and other negative emotions often keep people from sharing information and collaborating effectively. He wondered if smarter procedures and a dose of machine learning might help.    

His company provides what Ritchie calls a task manager: a piece of intelligent software designed as an inquisitive chat-bot. The bot asks people a series of carefully designed questions to make sure they understand the tasks they’ve been given – and can accomplish them with the resources they have.

“When I encounter an obstacle, I need to be able to tell my manager, ‘X doesn’t make sense, or ‘I need to change Y,’” Ritchie says. “That’s a potential area of tension. But once all parties understand the motivation for the change, the tension can be reduced.”

FixPDQ’s software “creates a contract” between the parties involved, Ritchie says, and helps remove the negative emotions that can arise between managers and those who report to them. The company’s product demonstrates how technology can play a critical role in managing the inconsistencies inherent to human impulses. The software also helps organizations to learn from their failures.  

The psychology seems sound. But why do you really need this technology? Can’t the manager and the subordinate just talk?

Yes and no. Let’s say a deadline is looming and the manager wants to make sure it will be met. She asks her subordinate, “You are going to get this done on time, right? No problems?”

Maybe the subordinate has encountered problems but doesn’t want to admit it. Instead of telling the truth, he tells the manager what she wants to hear – a recipe for trouble.   

With FixPDQ’s methodology, companies use the bots to ask the questions instead. This happens at the start of each assignment, and then at various milestones throughout the project. That creates an automated process ensuring that the right questions get asked of the right people, in time to take any necessary corrective measures.

Talking to a bot may sound impersonal and cold. But a 2019 study by Oracle and Future Workplace found that 64% of respondents would trust a robot more than they would trust their managers (perhaps because robots are immune to office politics). One-quarter said they would generally prefer to ask questions of an AI than of their boss.

Ritichie says some banks and insurance companies in New Zealand are using bots to help manage operational risk. Many have found that they get more balanced, more factual information from bots than from traditional interviews with employees.

“By inserting the bot in between the humans, you’ve removed the potential for an emotional interaction that might cause the communication to fail,” Ritchie says. “The bot removes the emotion, focuses on the facts, and aligns both parties on how to solve the problem. This helps reinforce positive, collaborative behavior.”

Using failure to create a resilient culture

How innovative an organization is depends, to a large extent, on how it copes with failure.

“Companies that aim to be innovative should expect failure – that’s inevitable,” Ritchie says. “But you want to prevent small failures from becoming big ones. By getting used to recognizing small failures, you increase your odds of creating something innovative.”

Nearly 20 years ago, an article in the Harvard Business Review observed that “big projects fail at an astonishing rate,” delivering disappointing results well over half the time. Much of this can be attributed to “misperceptions, insecurities, and communication difficulties that often take place on project teams.”

FixPDQ helps to prevent big failures from happening by making it more likely that staff will report at an early stage when projects are on the wrong track. This has the side benefit of improving what companies learn from their failure.

“The root causes of failure are people and process,” Ritchie says. “For the people part, it’s usually down to, ‘I can’t tell my boss the truth.’” 

Yet as a method of encouraging innovation, failure can be transformative. “When we fail, we understand what works well. Let’s say you want to test a hypothesis. You have to see what happens if it works, and what happens if it doesn’t. You have to look for the benefits of the failure.”

Some organizations get this. They have “failure parties” to help people jettison their negative view of failure and recognize its value.

Silicon Valley famously celebrates failure as a rite of passage. But Ritchie says that even this viewpoint is often misunderstood.

“When I first heard ‘fail fast,’ I found that most people didn’t know what it meant. Fail fast actually means that you test something as quickly as possible to see if you should go to the next step. Once you start doing that, you get in the habit of asking ‘What shall we try next?’ It’s an optimistic approach that tends to lead to better ideas.”

Obstacles can seem insurmountable, even small ones. This causes people and companies to get stuck. Ritchie hopes his inquisitive, emotionless bots will build organizations’ ability to circumvent those obstacles and get on with the business at hand.  

“You have to keep moving ahead so that failure doesn’t stop you or slow you down,” he says. You have to keep asking, ‘What do I do next?’”

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