Conforming to the Algorithm

Our Robot Overlords

Confirming to an algorithm removes our human individuality and uniqueness. It also makes us more easily replaced by an extension of the algorithm.

‘How would you feel being managed by an algorithm?’

I was asked this question few years back on a panel for the University of Sydney’s Digital Disruption Research Group. I responded that I hadn’t experienced that with an algorithm run on a machine. However, I’ve had human managers who mechanically applied their management algorithm. In fact, management practice is full of them.

Like the algorithms of the digital world, these management practices tend to standardise, commoditise and simplify the complexity of human behaviour, creativity and performance. How many organisations lost the leverage of unique talents because stack ranking of employee performance made the middle of the bell curve the safest performance zone?


Earlier this year there was much debate on twitter why recipes online are so terrible. They all begin with really long mostly irrelevant narratives. The only defining feature of these narratives is that they mention the recipe name repeatedly. You are standing in your kitchen ready to get started and you have to work your way through long story about an Italian or French holiday to get to the recipe. The simple answer was search engine optimisation.

Recipe authors use those long inconvenient narratives to hack the algorithms that determine their traffic. We can appeal to the algorithm or we can appeal to our audience. I note to many people that this blog is hardly SEO. It would be more effective but less valuable to me (& many others), if it was tightly focus, stuck to mainstream topics and patterns and scripted to suit keywords. If this blog said what everyone else said, it might have more traffic, but it would be pointless. Nobody needs more mindless lists and repetition. Curiously the one post on this site that consistently wins a small amount of SEO traffic is an accident. As part of advocating for capabilities in strategy and learning, I explained the difference between competency and capability. That explanation seems to have found a gap its own somewhat unique place in the market.

No Luddites. Just Rebels

We aren’t going to smash the machines that enable algorithms. As I have noted, some of those machines are human heads. The power of analytics and the march of automation will continue. There are real benefits to be had from their application. However we need to be alive to the costs.

What we can do is make the choice between aiming for the safe standardised middle and exploring ways to emphasize our unique human value. We can also advocate for change for those who are experiencing bias, exclusion or other issues interacting with a world that is driven by algorithms.

Over the last decade, I have recruited a number of senior management positions. Often the losing candidates are disappointed. They know they are qualified and ready for the next step. Often, I must explain that this was obvious to everyone. The challenge at a senior level is that aiming for the algorithmic middle of the market is unsafe. Everyone who makes the short list is qualified. Everyone can do the role. The one person who wins the role is unique in their fit for the strategy, the needs or the problems that they can solve. Worse still, the everyday middle skills are those that can be learned on the job when the unique skills take experience elsewhere. Nobody became a senior manager because they are the best at running team meetings.

Finding our place in world of algorithms is a question of how we find and develop our unique talents and capabilities. Individual human experiences, creativity and potential will play a key role in this path. Differentiation may be the critical element to enable you to be recognised uniquely or at least in a differentiated cohort from the mass. There are risks in targeting and aligning ourselves to the mainstream algorithmic path. As managers of organisations, we also need to ensure that we allow people the latitude to show us this potential and curtail any algorithms, human or machine, that chop it off this rich and valuable data.

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