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In the Age of Autonomous Cars, Can Your Organization Also Be Driverless?

Technologies often spawn metaphors, which change over time and shape how we think about work.

Metaphors matter. Explaining the meaning of one thing by referring to it in the familiar terminology of another shapes how we comprehend the world.

Metaphors come not only with physical attributes, but embedded assumptions. When I describe a merger of two organizations as a “train wreck,” you imagine each one fixed on its track, unable or unwilling to alter course or speed before a pileup. You don’t need a lot of details to understand it as an irreparable disaster resulting in twisted debris.

Once familiar, metaphors tend to endure. For example, many contemporary organizations owe their structure to two enduring metaphors: the assembly line, with its emphasis on standardization, linear processes, and efficiency; and the military, with its clearly delineated roles, ranks, chains of command, and reservations of authority. Even as work has become more networked and knowledge-based, with an emphasis on innovation and creativity, many executives and workers still cling to hierarchies designed for control, not the smooth flow of ideas and resources required for agility.

So what happens when a significant source of business metaphors gets turned on its head? Can that change how organizations see themselves and function? We’re about to find out, as driverless cars become part of our everyday lives. Automotive metaphors proliferated almost as far and wide as highways beginning in the second half of the 20th century. To speed things up, “put the pedal to the metal.” Teams “stay in their lane,” lest their work collide with that of another. Sixty years after its famous flop, “Edsel” is still used to describe a product that falls flat.

Automotive metaphors also often carry connotations of control. People put their careers in the “fast lane” or, as they get close to retirement, “downshift” to lesser responsibilities. The person in charge is “behind the wheel” and “driving” the company forward. Widely used in business is Jim Collins’s well-known metaphor about thinking of a company as a bus: “You are a bus driver. The bus, your company, is at a standstill, and it’s your job to get it going.”

Central to Collins’s metaphor is that it is far more important to worry first about who is on the bus and which roles — or seats — they occupy than where the bus is going. This will remain true, but how people work together may change radically as autonomous devices, artificial intelligence, and driverless cars become commonplace.

In driverless vehicles, algorithms, not individuals, will make many basic choices around route and speed, just as your favorite music app may now choose tracks once you’ve selected a general category. Already in many connected cars, technology can slow your vehicle when it senses an impending collision and it can parallel park for you. These technologies will shape what we expect to control and what we’re happy to have happen automatically.

Artificial intelligence is also coming to the office, where it will create “driverless organizations.” Many of the routine tasks of managers — the equivalent of watching the speed limit, activating turn signals, and checking the gas gauge — may well go away. Those check-ins and update meetings, cumbersome performance-management processes, and tedious project plans won’t require as much human participation as artificial intelligence steps in. Like a driverless car, the organization will have continuous sense-and-correct capabilities to keep everyone in their lanes, moving in the right direction, and focused on strategic objectives.

In a driverless organization, many routine tasks — the equivalent of watching the speed limit and checking the gas gauge — may well go away.

Research has shown that three key drivers of satisfaction at work derive from feelings of competence, autonomy, and being part of a team. The good news is that as technology takes over more mundane administrative tasks, managers may be freer to foster human-centric activities that drive this engagement. More darkly, increasing aspects of our work lives may follow strict business rules that lack empathy and nuance. Many commuters already put their trust in route optimizing apps such as Waze rather than their own hunches and experience. How long can it be until executives choose — and perhaps investors demand — that high-consequence (or even mundane) decisions be made, or at least be checked for bias and blind spots, by super-smart machines like those that govern self-driving cars?

The trick will be to balance when to hand things over to technology and when to ensure human participation, whether in the car or the workplace. This idea is already beginning to emerge. One large health-care system with which I have worked has default treatment protocols for virtually every common cancer. They are derived through ongoing analysis of all cases across the system, a far more expansive data set than the experience of any individual physician. A doctor may deviate from the protocol — but must justify why she wants to do so. Humans are asked to step up to their best game while technology both steers them from biases and exposes them to a broader knowledge base.

Self-driving cars are emerging as more people opt for car-sharing services with a range of vehicles rather than owning a specific one of their own. Together, these may expand our thinking as we extend the range of things we do in a vehicle as a bot steers us to our destination. And rather than a Collins-like monolithic bus with assigned seats, we may conceive of the organization as a more flexible fleet with people assigned to, or bidding for, shorter-term places in vehicles purpose-built for specific customer problems or address competitive challenges identified along the route. This quarter you work in a minivan overhauling the procurement system, while next quarter you are assigned to a roadster as part of a fast-moving product innovation team. The driverless organization will automate parsing a wide range of individuals’ skills, talents, and desires to optimize the mix of experience, fresh perspectives, and necessary abilities on each team along with the timeline and incentives.

This is not science fiction. Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmonson has written about the increasing need for teaming, the ability to nimbly form and dissolve teams to meet rapidly evolving challenges. The driverless organization will just take this to a higher, faster, and more precise level.

Driverless cars are coming. One major manufacturer claims that they will have them in full production within five years. And though the timeframe is the subject of much debate, a recent survey showed that 70 percent of Americans are ready to try one. As much as they will change life on the road, they will also shift our thinking about what it means to be in charge and in control. As they spawn metaphors, they will influence how we perceive the world and our social and organizational structures. It’s not too soon to start thinking about what that means for you and your company.

Eric McNulty

Eric J. McNulty is the associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative. He is the coauthor of You're It: Crisis, Change, and How to Lead When It Matters Most (PublicAffairs, 2019). He writes frequently about leadership, change, and organizational culture.

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