Work Futures Daily - Scaling Failure

| Happiness at Work | Wrong Kind of AI | Workplace Monitoring | Jeff Bezos on Failure |

Beacon NY - 2019-04-15 — AI at work: AI in workplace surveillance, AI automating people out of jobs. But also people finding happiness at work through a 20% rule, and Jeff Bezos imparting hard-won wisdom: failure has to scale, too.


I learned that Dropbox has partnered with Google to allow those who have a Dropbox Business account and G Suite account to get access (potentially) to a best-of-both-worlds fusion: Dropbox file sync-and-share with native Google Docs!

I like Dropbox better than Google Drive for file-sync-and-share, but I like the shared editing experience provided by Google Docs for complex writing projects, like writing reports. (Also, Dropbox has Paper, which is the work management approach we're now using at Work Futures.)

So, I

  1. upgraded by personal Dropbox to Business

  2. created a full G Suite account for work, and then

  3. discovered I'd have to apply for access to the beta.

If I don't get accepted after all that I'm going to be deeply disappointed.


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A Deceptively Simple Way to Find More Happiness at Work | Tim Herrera suggests we zoom into the fine-grained elements of our everyday tasks at work to find happiness and avoid burnout:

A study from the Mayo Clinic found that physicians who spend about 20 percent of their time doing “work they find most meaningful are at dramatically lower risk for burnout.” But here’s what’s fascinating: Anything beyond that 20 percent has a marginal impact, as “spending 50 percent of your time in the most meaningful area is associated with similar rates of burnout as 20 percent.”

Too much of a good thing is a bad thing.


In a pair of publications, The Revolution Need Not Be Automated and The Wrong Kind of AI? Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Labor Demand, Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo argue that AI use is biased toward automation (and job destruction), rather than making people more productive:

Unfortunately, the current trend in commercial AI development is toward more and more automation, with potentially disastrous consequences for society. To be sure, automation has been an engine of productivity growth since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when, starting in the late eighteenth century, weaving and spinning were mechanized. But the tide of automation does not automatically lift all boats. By replacing labor with machines in production tasks, automation reduces labor’s share of value added (and national income), contributes to inequality, and may reduce employment and wages.


In the past three decades, the accompanying changes needed to offset the labor-displacement effects of automation have been notably absent. As a result, wage and employment growth has remained stagnant, and productivity growth anemic.

Ominously, AI appears set to exacerbate this pattern, leading to even higher inequality and many more decades of slow wage growth and declining labor-market participation. But there is nothing about AI that requires this outcome. On the contrary, AI applications could be deployed to restructure tasks and create new activities where labor can be reinstated, ultimately generating far-reaching economic and social benefits.

Yes, they could be developed, but business leaders are more interested in cutting absolute costs instead of hypothetically increasing productivity of workers by augmenting their activities with AI. I fear that to change this trend we will need more than finger-wagging from a pair of economists, no matter how well-intentioned.


UK businesses using artificial intelligence to monitor staff activity | Robert Booth writes about Isaak, a workplace monitoring tool that applies AI to analyze worker behavior:

Dozens of UK business owners are using artificial intelligence to scrutinise staff behaviour minute-to-minute by harvesting data on who emails whom and when, who accesses and edits files and who meets whom and when.

The actions of 130,000 people in the UK and abroad are being monitored in real time by the Isaak system, which ranks staff members’ attributes.

Designed by a London company, Status Today, it is the latest example of a trend for using algorithms to manage people, which trade unions fear creates distrust but others predict could reduce the effects of bias.

The system shows bosses how collaborative workers are and whether they are “influencers” or “change-makers”. The computer can compare activity data with qualitative assessments of workers from personnel files or sales performance figures to give managers a detailed picture of how behaviour affects output.

Users so far include five law firms, a training company called Smarter Not Harder and a London estate agency, JBrown, according to Status Today, which promises “real-time insights into each employee and their position within the organisational network”. Workers do not automatically have a right to see the data, which is controlled by the employer.

The insurer Hiscox and the IT firm Cisco have used the system for short-term analysis rather than continuous surveillance, Status Today said.

Critics say such systems risk increasing pressure on workers who fear the judgment of the algorithm, and that it could encourage people not to take breaks or spend time in creative thought that will not be logged.

A Little Brother trend, but one with possible benevolent aspects, such as monitoring for overwork. Still, it could have a chilling effect on all sorts of non-measurable work, and human interaction:

The TUC’s [Trace Union Congress] general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Workers want to be trusted to do their jobs. But this kind of high-tech snooping creates fear and distrust. And by undermining morale, it could do businesses more harm than good. Employers should only introduce surveillance technologies after negotiation and agreement with the workforce, including union representatives. There should always be a workplace agreement in place that clarifies where the line is drawn for legitimate use, and that protects the privacy of working people.”


Jeff Bezos' annual shareholder letter | Jeff Bezos is no stranger to scaling exponentially, and in his annual shareholder letter he points out that 'failure has to scale, too':

Failure needs to scale too

As a company grows, everything needs to scale, including the size of your failed experiments. If the size of your failures isn’t growing, you’re not going to be inventing at a size that can actually move the needle. Amazon will be experimenting at the right scale for a company of our size if we occasionally have multibillion-dollar failures. Of course, we won’t undertake such experiments cavalierly. We will work hard to make them good bets, but not all good bets will ultimately pay out. This kind of large-scale risk taking is part of the service we as a large company can provide to our customers and to society. The good news for shareowners is that a single big winning bet can more than cover the cost of many losers.

Development of the Fire phone and Echo was started around the same time. While the Fire phone was a failure, we were able to take our learnings (as well as the developers) and accelerate our efforts building Echo and Alexa. The vision for Echo and Alexa was inspired by the Star Trek computer. The idea also had origins in two other arenas where we’d been building and wandering for years: machine learning and the cloud. From Amazon’s early days, machine learning was an essential part of our product recommendations, and AWS gave us a front row seat to the capabilities of the cloud. After many years of development, Echo debuted in 2014, powered by Alexa, who lives in the AWS cloud.

No customer was asking for Echo. This was definitely us wandering. Market research doesn’t help. If you had gone to a customer in 2013 and said “Would you like a black, always-on cylinder in your kitchen about the size of a Pringles can that you can talk to and ask questions, that also turns on your lights and plays music?” I guarantee you they’d have looked at you strangely and said “No, thank you.”

Even good bets don't always play out, but you still have to make some.

Quote of the Day

The leadership systems currently in use are designed to control relatively uneducated, mostly untrustworthy people in an environment of very slow change. In our free and democratic society, employees park their rights (and usually their sweat)—along with their brains—at the door.

Organizations today are the last remaining feudal enclaves. Too many people in organizations are subjected to authoritarian, and what they believe to be unreasonable, treatment. This is why there is so little effort to achieve in authoritarian organizations.

| James Belasco and Ralph Stayer, Flight of the Buffalo [1994]

[h/t to Corporate Rebels]


Fashion Has Become ‘Survival of the Fittest’ | Vanessa Friedman interviewed Andrew Rosen who is stepping down of CEO of Theory after founding the clothing line 22 years ago. This is proof that the changes happening in business are global, and clothing and fashion are a proxy for other industries.

So we are in a Darwinian fashion fight to the death?

There is definitely going to be a weeding out of retail stores and brands, and it’s going to make room for a whole new generation. It’s going to be more abrupt than normal because everything is going so fast and just getting by isn’t going to work anymore.

You have to be emerging, or you have to be in the Top 10. In the old days you could be in the Top 25. I think you see lots of emerging guys being given opportunities, both from an investment point of view and an interest point of view, because there’s a whole new way of doing business that companies with a lot of baggage and heritage can’t operate in.

So where does that leave us?

Companies need to continually modernize their platform. It is difficult. A guy being the C.E.O. of the company for 22 years, like I was, that’s probably not going to happen.

At the end of my career as a C.E.O. I was working a lot harder than I was 10 years before because there was so much I needed to learn, and my business was so complex. At a point in my life when things should have been easier, they were more complicated, and I had to work harder to stay abreast.

But that’s the playing field. We’re going through another industrial revolution, and we are right in the middle in terms of how the world operates and how we live our lives and how companies operate. It’s never going to come to a screeching halt, but it probably will slow down. Hopefully.

I disagree profoundly about the slowing down part. But this is coming from someone retiring.


Mavenlink raises $48 million for its project management service | Manish Singh has a good run down of various work management companies venture funding and acquisitions in the past year: Mavenlink, Asana,, Atlassian.


“Allowing a modern audience to see Helvetica for the first time”: Charles Nix talks us through the newly released Helvetica Now | Jyni One chats with Charles Nix of Monotype about Helvetica Now, an updating of the classic font.