Watson Wins!: Are Lawyers in “Jeopardy”?

February 20, 2011

We all knew it would come to this. From the time back in 1968 when “2001: A Space Odessy” scared us senseless, we knew computers would one day rule the world . . . and the universe. Then it was Hal, the prophetic image of the all knowing computer possessed of the human capacity to dominate and destroy others.

When Watson trounced former Jeopardy champions, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter earlier this week, the machine beat the men. Watson finished with game winnings of $77,147, Jennings with $24,000 and Rutter with $21,600. In addition, Watson’s victory sent $1,000,000 to its (his) favorite charity. It seemed that we witnessed the Hal prophecy come true this week.

Or did we?

Some think so. The Wall Street Journal reported this week that “servers” such as doctors and lawyers hold jobs which are truly in jeopardy. According to hedge fund manager and author, Andy Kessler, technology will gradually replace those who answer questions from consumers under a grant of licensed exclusivity. See, Is Your Job an Endangered Species? Citing the degree to which ediscovery technology replaces the work previously done by lawyers and paralegals, Kessler observes that much of what lawyers currently do eventually will be done by computers (like Watson).

However, even Kessler’s pessimistic (or realistic) view of the impact of technology on the serving professions recognizes a significant difference between servers and creators. Until artificial intelligence can do more than merely search for answers (like Google and Watson), humans have the edge in the realm of creativity.

I was reminded of this also this week when I attended the Napier-Looby Bar Foundation banquet in Nashville which recognized the powerful work of lawyers in changing the world for the better. In addition to awards given to local members of the African-American bar for their work in social change, we heard from the “King of the Court”. Perry Wallace was the first black basketball player to play in the Southeastern Conference. He was recruited by Vanderbilt University in 1966 and was treated to unimaginable hostility in university arenas across the South as he broke through the previously all-white world of SEC basketball.

Wallace later went to law school at Columbia and has impacted the world through his work as a lawyer and educator. He currently serves as a professor of law at Washington College of Law. He has been a trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. He told the story of his involvement in cases like that of a woman condemned to death by stoning for adultery in a Middle Eastern country while her adulterous partner was spared any penalty whatever.

Watson and his descendants will never accomplish feats of courage, conscience and creativity like that. There always will be a place for those who can change the course of history, not simply recount it.

However, lawyers who are content to perform tasks best performed by computers are an endangered species and will find their jobs outsourced and techno-sourced leaving the creative lawyers in greater demand than ever before.

Heeding the warnings of Kessler and Watson will serve the legal profession and the clients it serves extremely well. For example, turning the project management of activities and resources over to the process efficiency of computer systems will allow the creative lawyers greater freedom to build their professional resume, provide innovative solutions to client problems, improve their business portfolio and add value to their firms and their clients.

They will also begin to enjoy their world of professional achievement much more than merely working harder at doing what computers do best.

Take that, Watson!


The Flat World of Revolution: Complex Adaptive Systems in Action

February 12, 2011

“Anyone wanting to teach a course in 21st-century politics should begin in Egypt, where the power of real-time flat Web-savvy organizations over ponderous hierarchies has just been illustrated.” Roger Cohen, New York Times, February 11, 2011

Much will be written about the origins and the consequences of the decisions made by the organizers of the Tahrir Square uprising that changed not only Egypt, but the world. Although the Cairo revolution has now achieved its initially implausible goal of ousting Hosnir Mubarak from his tyrannical post, creating a democracy in the wake of this week’s events is another matter entirely.  We can only watch and cheer on the fledgling democratic spermatozoa as it seeks its illusive unfertilized egg in hopes of creating a zygote with some potential for sustainable life.

Among the many astonishing lessons the Tahrir demonstrations teach us about strategic approaches to change in complex adaptive systems (See Complex Adaptive Systems: Why Hierarchy is Dead), one is the power of the flat organization.  Hierarchies bent on retaining power require cumbersome bureaucracies of command and control which are dependent on the coercive influence of individuals in each descending level of the organization.  Individuals recoil at the loss of their freedom to choose.

In contrast, flat organizations are motivated by far more powerful influences than fear.  Autonomy, purpose and mastery are more influential by far than holding on to a position or the pay grade one occupies.  (See Daniel Pink’s Drive.)  Hierarchies work through the status they confer and the ascending emoluments of power they create.  All that crumbles in the face of flat organizations where all are empowered equally and given autonomy to achieve greater purposes than maintaining the status quo.

This dynamic shift in power in Cairo was achieved in the two weeks leading up to January 25, 2011.  Emboldened by the amazing events in Tunisia following the fall of a cruel dictator and his culture of fear, a dozen young Egyptians outwitted the feared security forces of Mubarak as they planned a demonstration which was “off the grid”.  As reported by the Wall Street Journal, it was a secret rally that sparked an uprising.

Meeting in the living room of one of the young revolutionary’s mother, the planners created a diversionary tactic which dispatched the President’s security forces to 20 sites across Cairo. The police were sent to dispel “flash mobs” of protesters organized to gather following prayers at pre-established sites near mosques around the city.  However, the site which was not publicized for the benefit of security force reaction was a candy store near a slum section of the city.  The poor youth gathered unmolested by police and marched on Tahrir Square which was unsuspected and unprotected.

A revolution was born.  The power of flat was demonstrated.  Hierarchy was unable to catch up and ultimately has succumbed to its ponderous reliance on the status quo and the coercive use of power.  The hope of democracy has been ignited into a spark of life.

Go spermatozoa, go!

Saving Face and a Country in Chaos

February 3, 2011

Like most of you, I have watched with confusion and sadness as one of the great civilizations of the world seems to be collapsing into chaos.  While I am no Egyptologist or an expert on Middle Eastern relations, I did listen intently to an interesting interview of an Egyptian who lives in Cairo.  This university educated man chose to participate in the initial stages of the protest.  However, after the announcement by the government that President Mubarak would not run for re-election, he chose to stop protesting.  The American reporter asked why he chose not to pressure the President to step down immediately.  His response was fascinating.

We must allow the man some dignity.  He was a war hero and even though I do not support his governance, he must not be humiliated.

The American reporter seemed stunned.  She pressed the man stating that the President was not respected and the people wanted him to leave now.  The American went further speculating that his announcement may have been a ploy to remain in power long enough to set up a transition that benefited the ruling party.  The Egyptian agreed that these were all possibilities.  But, the man replied:

We MUST allow him to save face.  We have no right to embarrass him.

To the American reporter (and to many Westerners), this argument seems trivial.  American politicians routinely embarrass people as a matter of course.  We can’t imagine “letting someone off the hook”  just so they wouldn’t be public shamed.  But, the reporter missed a strong cultural cue.  In many societies, Eastern and Middle Eastern in particular, allowing someone personal dignity is a key component in relationship and conflict.  In these cultures, if even if you get your way, you lose if you humiliate your opponent.

There is much we have to learn.  Even though Westerners don’t value this worldview as a culture, we value it individually.  No one wants to be humiliated.  No one needs to be shamed in a loss.  Even when we are put in competitive environments, it is incumbent on us to treat others respectfully.  We allow people to save face, even if they don’t deserve it.

Perhaps, it is best if President Mubarak steps down immediately, but whatever happens, I have learned much from this man.  If an Egyptian who is watching his beloved country crumble around him can provide that grace to a 30-year leader of a regime, can I not treat my boss, co-workers, employees, service workers, and family with the same kindness?

Riot, Revolution or Restitution?: Unrest in the Arab World

February 3, 2011

“The new generation, the generation of the Internet, is fearless. They want their full rights, and they want life, a dignified life.”   Shawki al-Qadi, Yemen

The scenes are rivoting.  The meaning unclear.  As rocks fly, men on horses and camels charge the crowd and homemade bombs explode, supporters of the government seek to disrupt the power of people clamoring for freedom while the most powerful army in the Middle East watches without response.  Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt and Yemen.  Who’s next?

A regional movement without a leader.  At one time the leader might have been Qaddafi, Hussein, Nasser or Arafat.  Voices without a spokesperson clamor for a new order.  The spokesmen who have attempted to fill the power vacuum have not succeeded to this point in speaking the mind of the people in the streets.  Apparently committed to peaceful protest, hundreds of thousands of men, women and children remain unmoved, insisting on freedom, dignity and a culture of collaboration.  They are clearly willing to sacrifice their life and liberty for something more fundamental than comfort and security.

“[P]rotesters offered an alternative, their empowerment standing as possibly the most remarkable legacy of a people who often lamented their apathy.” Anthony Shadid in today’s New York Times cites a regional awakening in search of a leader.  He quotes a woman in Cairo as she joins the mass expression of  hope, “I’m fighting for my freedom,” Noha al-Ustaz said as she broke bricks on the curb. “For my right to express myself. For an end to oppression. For an end to injustice.”

This uprising in Arab nations, each more or less friendly to U.S. interests, seems to involve far more than geopolitical alliances or religious purity.  The cries for freedom from tyranny recall other movements in search of a leader.  Our own U.S. revolution is certainly one.  However, even in our history, cries for freedom rang out from peaceful protest to change slavery, civil rights and other denials of human dignity.

As cited in this space earlier (See: The End of Coercive Power: Really?) the death of fundamentalism has been predicted by much wiser minds.  Hierarchy which exists to deny the universal human need for dignity, autonomy and purpose cannot survive.  Autocratic leadership in business, government or religion will meet its end at the hands of people who will regain their autonomy by any means possible, peaceful or otherwise.

Add to the deep human longing for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the power of the Internet, autocrats beware.  Tyrants be warned.  The capacity for instant communication to mobilize the masses in the face of oppression changes everything.  The first line of defense in today’s battle for the allegiance of an oppressed people is “shut down the Internet”.  The thinking is, “prevent them from sharing ideas and the narrative of freedom, and the demonstrations will end.”  If the autocrats can prevent “mass collaboration” the tyranny can last a little longer.  But not much longer.  (See: Mass Collaboration)

What is unfolding in Egypt (Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen) represents something far larger than political unrest in an Arab country.  It is less about which brand of Muslim theology will prevail.  It has less to do with geopolitical alliances than basic human needs.  To a conflict manager the headlines reveal something far more telling.

Fundamental change in thinking requires a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo and a new narrative of hope.  Without the new narrative, dissatisfaction is merely unrest waiting for a leader to emerge. When people reach the point that the old normal is unsatisfying, the search for meaning begins.  In Egypt, in business, in religion and education, mass collaboration will unseat stale and self-protective leadership.  Conflict managers can help the dissatisfied protesters, congregants and employees search for new meaning, forge new neuro-pathways and create a new reality out of their own expectations while preserving self-determination.

The path to peace in the Middle East must begin with dissatisfaction, but will only progress through the creation of new narratives which capture the imagination of hope.  With each trans-Atlantic cable, with each diplomatic initiative there must be a new story which connects the present with the possible.  In each troubled business or marriage, there must be a journey from dissatisfaction to discovery in which the next adjacent possibility leads to a new awakening.  This is the wonderfully challenging and rewarding work of conflict management.

In all these conflicts, watch as the outcomes take shape through the visioning of leaders who can articulate the new narrative which satisfies the hunger of mass collaboration.  Occasionally, the process of transformational change gets valuable assistance from peacemakers who can help the participants in conflict visualize their own path to peace.  Such is the moment in Cairo.