HBR March/April 2023: The new human-machine relationship

Harvard Business Review

March/April 2023

Annotated table of contents

  1. Adi Ignatius, Your calendar needs more white space

Adi Ignatius, the editor in chief of HBR, highlights the article on busyness in this issue.

Idea watch

2. HBR Team, Does gamified training get results?

Designed to teach employees about the firm’s products and services and deployed at 24 offices at various times and in randomized order, the gamified training was found to be effective in generating new business from new and existing clients at KPMG. There was a positive feed-back loop between employee engagement before the training and greater willingness to train, with positive business results in turn sustaining high levels of job satisfaction. Leaders’ sign-up rates and length of training were influential, but a certain amount of patience was necessary, as results became visible in the second or third quarter after the training was introduced. Christian Gossan, a director of the advisory arm of KPMG in Australia, who led the creation of the game, answers questions about motivation, design and lessons learned.

3. Amy Meeker, Cat owners are more cautious consumers than dog owners

Meeker interviews professor Xiaojing Yang and colleagues about research on mindsets and consumer behaviour. They have found that dog owners tend to have promotion focus, to be more adventurous and risk-tolerant, while cat-owners or cat favouring people tend to be more conservative. This correlation was consistent across 11 studies involving US participants and testing preferences in a variety of scenarios, including choice of investment instruments (stocks versus bonds), toothpaste for pets, a chance to win the lottery versus money in hand, and responses to Covid. The results suggest that marketers are well advised to take account of mindsets revealed by pet-ownership when they design their messages.

4. Sid Sijbrandij, GitLab’s CEO, on building one of the world’s largest all-remote companies

GitLab has built a powerful, cohesive culture by devising processes that enable effective accountability, transparency, and communication. Sijbrandij describes how tasks and solutions are devised, allocated and fulfilled, with an emphasis on outcomes. Company-wide objectives and key results, set by the executive team, cascade down the organisation with each team articulating their own. Cultural alignment results from embracing two top values, results, and iteration, transparently documented in the GitLab handbook, a vast repository (2000 web pages and counting) of experience and practice that offers guidance on precedent and collective wisdom, including the product road map. Rules around holding regular online meetings – from who participates to note-taking – focus on getting work done with minimum waste of time. And in-person meetings are purposeful, scheduled regularly and funded by the company.

Spotlight: The new human-machine relationship

5. Ben Armstrong and Julie Shah, A smarter strategy for using robots

The use of robots in manufacturing is often extolled as the perfect solution to productivity and labour shortage problems. In this article, Armstrong and Shah draw attention to the slow pace of adoption of robots, which is likely due to downsides such as costs created by process rigidity. For an optimal solution, i.e. positive-sum automation, companies need to devise easy-to-understand tools, involving frontline workers to tap into their practical insight and providing training to operate, repair, reprogram robots with confidence. Companies also need to adopt a nuanced set of measures for success, to capture the ability of robots to learn new tasks, switching costs, and the impact on workers.

6. Nita A. Farahany, Neurotech at work

Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University, takes stock of how neurotech is penetrating the workplace and cautions about necessary safeguards. So far, brain activity monitoring at work has focused on tracking fatigue, monitoring attention and concentration, and creating more adaptive work environments, where employees are encouraged to take breaks when necessary. Unsurprisingly, the introduction of neurotech can be fraught, and needs to proceed with care, considering employee rights, privacy laws and regulations, terms of use and conditions for the storage and disclosure of data.

7. Mike Seymour, Dan Lovallo, Kai Riemer, Alan R. Dennis, and Lingyao (Ivy) Yuan, AI with a human face

Personalised service, while desirable, may be difficult, if not impossible to achieve at scale. In this article, Seymour et al. explain how digital humans can be deployed to offer such a service, whether the relationship is intermittent or ongoing, and whether it is task or experience focused, filling in roles such as virtual agents, assistants, influencers, or companions. The article provides guidance for designing digital humans and for deciding whether they would be the right choice for a particular need. Numerous examples of use cases in companies such EY, ZOZO town fashion company, Deloitte UK, and WPP, and creators of digital humans, including Soul Machine, Brud, Synthesia, and Digital Domain illustrate.


8. Adam Waytz, Beware a culture of busyness

This article explains that appearing to be busy could become a norm in organisational life, subtly undermining actual productivity. Busyness can feel good in the moment, and the sense of effort and dedication, including long working hours, could offer reassurance that we are doing the right think, we are on the right track. However, as Waytz argues, busyness could also be detrimental, leading to burnout for individuals and teams, and undermining resilience and effectiveness for organisations in the long run. He suggests several interventions to make sure that the culture around what it means to work hard and to achieve stays healthy. He argues that leaders should focus on outcomes and should carry out an audit to establish that employees have time for deep work. They should embrace paid time off and set a positive example around it. And there should be slack built into the organisation to create resilience.

9. Lynda Gratton, Redesigning how we work

Gratton suggests that the transition to flexible working is ongoing: it is likely that several years will be necessary before a new stable working regime emerges. To guide the unfolding transition, she offers four questions that can inform action by managers and invite a reconsideration of values, of the specificity of products and services and the labour force, a better definition of what is not working and clarity about lessons learned, and data gathered from experiments so far. Going forward, supporting teams and managers, and taking guidance from data are important next steps.

10. Linda Greer, Francesca Gino, and Robert I. Sutton, You need two leadership gears

In an analysis that draws on extensive empirical observations, Greer and her colleagues argue that optimal leadership requires a subtle balance between listening and giving direction, between inclusive, fair consultation and determining a course of action in an organisation. This is a high-level skill that presupposes understanding how to intentionally wield and delegate power at different moments. The article defines the two sets of behaviours, suggests diagnostics for identifying rigidities in switching between them and provides advice for setting expectations and reinforcing shifts with words and deeds.  

11. Nathan Furr and Kate O’Keefe, The hybrid start-up

The availability of digital technologies has created both constraints and opportunities for established companies: while competitive pressures intensify, the cost of setting up new ventures has also come down. But successfully combining the assets of a corporation and the entrepreneurial spirit of a start-up requires careful choices: picking the right leadership; recruiting effectively from the company; testing the value proposition; and achieving scalability. This article draws on analysis of 200 ventures created by established companies with the help of BCG X, the tech-build and design unit of Boston Consulting Group to offer insights in these areas. For illustration, it uses examples such as UP42, an industry-wide platform, set-up by Airbus; Endpoint, by First American, in the US real-estate sector; Snackbox, offering bite-size insurance products, by AIA Australia; RepairSmith by Mercedes; Ware2Go by UPS and others.

12. Colleen Ammerman, Boris Groysberg, and Ginni Rometty, The new-collar workforce

Ammerman et al. point out the inadequacies of using certification of degrees alone as a decisive criterion for hiring. They find that skills such as collaborating well, taking initiative, and thinking critically do not depend on completing formal education. Putting such skills first is possible and the article outlines what this would mean for hiring and for company culture. They suggest using a new taxonomy of skills and broadening the talent pool by recasting the relationships with current education providers, retraining managers, and providing a cohort experience. Building talent within the company will also require reshaping current processes for promotion and talent development more generally. The authors draw on the experience of implementing this approach at IBM and other major companies, such as Cleveland Clinic, Bank of America, and Delta.

13. Mark J. Greeven, Katherine Xin, and George S. Yip, How Chinese companies are reinventing management

Greeven et al. suggest that digitally enhanced directed autonomy (DEDA) is becoming a dominant feature in Chinese companies, structured around three principles: autonomy at scale, digital platforms in the middle and focus on clearly defined projects. Thus, autonomy may entail authority not only over deciding how the work is delivered, but also control over tasks such as hiring and compensation. The connective role between customer facing and backroom functions is assumed by platforms that centralize shared services and data, enabling decentralised decision-making. And finally, execution is enhanced by focusing efforts on a clearly defined task, budget, and timeline, usually to solve a particular problem. Abundant examples from companies such as Handu Group, HStyle, Haier, ZZJYT, SF Express, Lin Qingxuan, Alibaba, BYD and others, across a range of sectors, offer suggestions for their Western counterparts.

14. N. Anand and Jean-Louis Barsoux, Fixing a self-sabotaging team

Bonding in groups, or teams, leads to profound, deep-seated patterns that stabilise expectations, even as they cast group members in particular roles. In this article, Anand and Barsoux draw on the work of Melanie Klein and Wilfred Bion to identify four patterns that can become pathological and impede the ability of a group to respond creatively and appropriately to new developments and challenges: the sole saviour, the dynamic duo, the fight mode, and the flight mode. They can be diagnosed through features such as who typically speaks, about what, whom the speakers look at, who interrupts or challenges whom, and the team approach to big problems. While largely invisible to participants, these group patterns can nonetheless be brought to the surface through the use of sociograms enabling teams to become self-monitoring and to identify, challenge and shift towards more tolerant and realistic behaviours.

15. Sandra Matz, What psychological targeting can do

Using data to characterise personality, specifically according to the OCEAN model, and to deploy it in marketing, has now come of age. The five fundamental traits of the model – openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism – have been convincingly linked to consumer behaviour, according to Matz, a leading researcher in the field. In this article, she sets out several principles that can help companies do psychological targeting right: only use it when other approaches are insufficient; create a holistic consumer experience that offers personalised additional value and insight; be transparent about the data you collect and how you use it; anticipate ethical implications and refrain from anything that might be construed as abusive overreach. Numerous examples of marketing campaigns, on social media and beyond, give insight on how psychological targeting works in practice.


16. Morra Aarons-Mele, How high achievers overcome their anxiety

Success, it turns out, is not anxiety free. In fact, as Aarons-Mele shows, many successful professionals need to learn to harness their anxiety and turn it into fuel for effective and sustainable performance. Thus, anxiety is often triggered by habitual thought patterns or responses to situations such as all or nothing thinking, labelling incidents in terms of definitive identity (what a loser!), jumping to conclusions, catastrophising, filtering to focus only on the disquietingly negative, discounting the positive and so on. By noticing and naming these patterns, it is possible to lessen their effect and to begin to put them in perspective. Aarons-Mele also suggests seeing anxiety as an ally and motivator, practicing self-compassion, alongside seeing the humour, exercise, and meditation.

17. Jill Avery and Marco Bertini, Case study: Should a dollar store raise prices to keep up with inflation?

This case study explores the tension between a strong brand identity, based on the firm promise to keep all prices at one dollar, and the need to increase revenues to keep up with competitors, as suggested by the board. Will one of the two strategies suggested – less product for the same price, or creating a more expensive class of offerings – win over the whole executive team?

18. Holly Bauer Forsyth, Should you quit your job?

Balancing security and risk taking has become a central preoccupation for many employees in the wake of the pandemic. In this review essay Bauer Forsyth considers three books that explore the pros and cons of quitting your job and asking anew fundamental questions about a life’s purpose and priorities.

19. Alison Beard, Life’s work interview with Patti Smith

Patti Smith reflects on her creativity and the path she has forged, between music, family, and writing. Songs, books and friendships have grown spontaneously and organically. “The core of all my important relationships is work”, she says. “Work is the key – that and mutual respect. I seem to always be attracted to fellow workers.”