Resisting Automation: How to Convince Naysayers

Change is hard. As humans, we like to keep things the same, we thrive on routine. When that routine is disrupted, we tend to flail around aimlessly until we figure out the new normal. This applies in business, especially today when technology is rapidly changing and becoming more efficient. We get so used to the way things currently run that implementing automation is scary. It removes some of the control we have over certain processes, thus changing the routine of how the day runs. We tend to hold on to old processes and procedures as a backup, but that backup becomes unnecessary when machines are involved. Convincing someone of this truth can be difficult, though, so here are some best practices for overcoming resistance to automation.

The first step is to approach it in a caring manner. People fear that automating something will mean they lose their job, when that’s not really the case. Machines can only handle what they’re programmed to handle, they are not equipped to make decisions based on circumstances outside their programming. So start by asking questions. Why is this process here? What is it’s purpose? And actually listen to the answer. When you press people gently, they are more likely to open up. As opposed to coming in and recommending many changes off the bat, which will send any person running in the opposite direction.

As you talk to people and they open up, they will begin to tell you what isn’t working well, what isn’t working at all, what keeps them up at night. Approach it as if they are your partners. Your job is to make their job easier, to make it so they aren’t up thinking about problems at night. Ask what their biggest worries are, what are the things that if they stopped working would make everyone miserable. Make sure they know that’s your job, that’s what you want to accomplish, to give them peace of mind that their business is going to run more efficiently and things aren’t going to wake them in the middle of the night.

Another helpful tip is to be face-to-face with the person you are discussing automation with. Read the body language, the facial expressions, see where they truly are with everything. For instance, if you’re talking to a group of people about a particular process and you get to a point where you talk about a specific step and the entire group cringes, you know that step is a problem. Then you can ask, how can we make this step go away? It’s clear that it’s causing a problem for multiple people, so finding a way to take it off their plate becomes a priority.

Much of the resistance you may encounter comes from a culture of fear. Fear of change, fear of removing something and replacing it with something else. But the opposite of fear is trust. So if you go in with a mentality of collaboration, a mentality that you’re on their side and you really care about their business and its success, you’re more likely to gain that trust. Because, at the end of the day, you’re going to remove things people have been used to better or worse for years. And the people you’re working with need to be comfortable with what you’re removing and understand why it’s going away.

The final tip is to help people understand that their job isn’t going anywhere. You can’t automate knowledge. There are things in life that require more than numbers or parameters to make a decision. Knowledge is acquired, whether through education or experience or both. There are tasks which systems are perfectly capable of taking over and automating, things machines are vastly more efficient at completing than humans. But there are also tasks which require thought and knowledge, and those are things systems are not good at.

Even if you’re automating part of a person’s job, help them understand that their job isn’t going anywhere. Their brain is still an integral part of doing that job. Actually, you are there to make their job easier by freeing up time to focus on the important parts of what they do. Remind them that systems are good at gathering information, moving things from point A to point B, taking knowledge that’s already been collected and redistributing it. They are not good at making decisions based on that knowledge.

Automation can be a scary thing for a variety of reasons. But if you approach a business as a partner, listen to what they have to say and gain their trust, you will find it far easier to accomplish the task at hand. Not only will you actually help their business run more efficiently, but you will give them peace of mind.

About the Author

Pieter VanIperen, Managing Partner of PWV Consultants, leads a boutique group of industry leaders and influencers from the digital tech, security and design industries that acts as trusted technical partners for many Fortune 500 companies, high-visibility startups, universities, defense agencies, and NGOs. He is a 20-year software engineering veteran, who founded or co-founder several companies. He acts as a trusted advisor and mentor to numerous early stage startups, and has held the titles of software and software security executive, consultant and professor. His expert consulting and advisory work spans several industries in finance, media, medical tech, and defense contracting. Has also authored the highly influential precursor HAZL (jADE) programming language.

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