Unless you have been living under a rock for the last 10 years, it’s highly likely you’ve heard something about artificial intelligence. This something might be along the lines of high-profile and exciting new innovations such as self-driving cars, computers capable of diagnosing cancer or automated customer support. Otherwise, it may be in connection to terms such as ‘Industry 4.0’ and the ‘Internet of Things’, terms intended to encapsulate how innovation is driving a change in the interactions and relationship between humans and technology and what an increasingly AI-powered future might look like as a result. For business leaders, AI is a learning curve they will have to begin climbing sooner rather than later to remain competitive and relevant in an increasingly AI-driven future. The challenge faced by many business leaders isn’t a lack of awareness of AI, accepting the changes AI is driving in their industry or acknowledging the opportunities. Rather the challenge is a question: ‘where – and how – do I begin’?
Beginning the climb
When confronting any new challenge, our instinct is often to focus on the problem and learning more about it. Thus, the answer to the question rapidly evolves into more questions such as “what is AI”, “how does it work”, “what are the use cases” and “how can my business benefit from AI”. Whilst these are great questions with exciting answers, the problem with focusing on the answers to these questions too early in the AI journey can lead down a rabbit hole. AI is a highly complex and rapidly evolving field with new technologies and applications emerging virtually every day: what AI is and can do today is not likely to reflect what it is capable of achieving tomorrow.
The rapid growth of AI means starting the journey with learning about AI represents a double-edged sword to business leaders. On one hand, the rate of innovation makes AI appear increasingly complex and nebulous with new capabilities and possibilities constantly emerging, creating a feeling of never quite understanding enough and fostering a “let’s wait and see” mentality. This makes it tempting and easy to delay decision making and taking action in the hopes that innovation will slow, the learning curve will flatten, any ‘kinks’ will have been worked out and AI can be neatly packaged allowing businesses to simply ‘plug and play’ to reap the benefits. On the other, history often isn’t kind to companies that read the writing on the wall and acted too late. Which puts us back to square one – where and how to begin?
Start with ‘Why’
AI is an exciting field and I highly encourage you to ask all the questions mentioned previously and more. But for the reasons presented above, beginning your journey by trying to wrap your head around the wonderful world of opportunity afforded by AI isn’t necessarily the best first step. In his book ‘Start With Why’, Simon Sinek explains that ‘asking why’ is a highly effective approach to creating a shared understanding, vision, purpose and goal for a social movement, idea or business. When it comes to AI, asking why shifts the focus from trying to comprehend the all the unknowns – the different types of technology, how they work and the potential benefits – to understanding the fundamental motivations that drive your business to explore AI in the first place.
Getting to the heart of your business’ why can be a journey in and of itself, but it’s vital preparation that establishes the underlying values and principles that will shape and influence your AI strategy. All future discussions, activities and expectations should be clearly linked to these core principles – the why – and is essential to orienting your business on its AI journey. In the stormy seas of AI, your why is the compass that will help avoid distractions or becoming side-tracked and keep you heading true North. Realising any kind of value through AI will be significantly hindered without first determining the challenges and opportunities your business must address in order to thrive and defining clear objectives that will enable it to do so.
Seem a bit obvious?
This may all seem rather obvious, but it’s worth reaffirming. AI is exciting, complex and en masse, poorly understood: a combination that can often result in people wasting significant time, energy and even money chasing their tails trying to understand what AI is and how to extract value from it without understanding what they really want to achieve from it. Having a clear why will help you define goals and develop a strategy to achieve it. Your why will also help foster resilience. The fact is that AI does come with a learning curve and developing a new AI solution or integrating an existing solution into your business’ operations is unlikely to be a simple, straightforward or entirely pain free. AI is not a short term play, but part of a long term game: being clear on the fundamental business challenges it addresses will help you make smarter decisions from the start and maintain momentum when the going gets tough and the challenge seems insurmountable.