Don’t automate too soon!

Can you think of a cooler trend in business recently than AI, ML and generally: automation? Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and all types of ‘big scaling’ is something that seems to be a vital part of the ‘pitching bingo’. Most startups are proud to be including these while trying to convince investors to join their projects.

Recently I’ve heard a great summary of these actions. How to differentiate machine learning from artificial intelligence? Well, apparently if it’s written in Python it’s ML, when it’s AI, then it’s done in Power Point. I love this comparison, as it shows how artificial it is and how little ‘junior entrepreneurs’ know about when to automate their businesses. In other words, in most of the cases AI still exists only in Power Point presentations and it’s the machine learning that barely starts it way up in the daily reality. More on that below.

 

There is a good (audio)book that is worth your consideration when it comes to choosing the right moment for automation and scaling. It’s “Nail It Then Scale It” by Nathan Furr & Paul Ahlstrom. Dive deeper when you have a moment.

 

In simple terms, real AI is something most businesses will still not need within the next decade nor would it be financially efficient to be investing in that field. When it comes to ML, a ‘machine’ usually takes a lot, a lot of data in order to ‘learn’ its ways to help in process automation. By ‘a lot of data’ I don’t mean tens and hundreds of records of data, but hundreds of thousands and more. For the majority of businesses, this will take years to gain enough data to be even thinking about the proper use of ML.

Having said that, there is much you can do in between. Believe it or not, there used to be business before artificial intelligence and machine learning. I am not talking only about pure human intelligence, but also about the algorithms and process optimizations that can be done much cheaper, quicker and in a more financially effective way.

While meeting my clients via SaunaGrow.com (yes, in a sauna) or while listening to startup pitches as an investor at BlackPearls.vc I often observe the same scenario. The Team that has merely started its business and is in a very early stage wants to scale up their business through AI, ML and automations. Much too soon. Why?

There are few major reasons why you should not consider automation (or its higher forms) too early.

  1. Cost of automation, incl. planning & IT development is extremely high when compared to manual work.
  2. In most cases, the lack of full knowledge of the process means also that the resources invested in automation are simply wasted. You’re not building the thing that is needed at that time.
  3. Automation often means increasing the distance between you and your customers. You don’t want to be doing that too soon.

There is of course a point at which the scale of your business will justify automation, but in most cases, that moment is further than you initially think. As an example – at AirHelp most of our processes were very manual even when we were serving 3k customer enquiries a month. It started to be useful to automate at the level of 10-50k customers and became essential only after reaching the goal of 100k customer enquiries a month. Now, having helped over 14M air passengers, the company’s processes are very much automated. Today even with c.a. 100 product & tech specialists on board, it’s still not always so obvious which part of the process should be automated next.

In the initial years it was way easier and more effective (time & money) to increase the size of a Customer Service Team. That has given us more data and opportunities to realize what parts of the process are the real bottle necks and require automation in the first place. The priorities here were changing pretty much every quarter as we got wiser as a Team. For that to work well, you need the best people in place. At AirHelp, that would not have been possible if it were not for Natalia Laskowska – best VP of Operations ever. Her knowledge of the processes and ability to build a great Team is best in class and has helped the company grow in the right direction at an amazing speed. I’ll touch on the people element of automation and growing business in a separate article, as it definitely requires dedicated attention.

To sum it up. Learn from this process. Whenever you think of automation, consider the cost of that process and the alternative cost. Can’t you use your IT resources better and in the meantime deal with increased manual workload in a more efficient way? Make a simple business case whenever you’re about to add a new ‘automation task’ on your roadmap. Delay tech driven automation without stopping process optimization.

 

Boleslaw Drapella

Founder at SaunaGrow.com, exCEO of AirHelp Poland.

Let’s meet in a sauna to talk business.

Assume positive intentions vs do not assume.

There is a lot I have learned over the last 20 years of my management career. Only a handful of lessons, however, that have matured inside of me enough that I can actually call them game changers. Game being not only the business efficiency, which is so important to me, but more of a personal comfort and sanity of a kind.

Being a leader and a manager, it is extremely hard to always convey the bigger picture and ‘the Why’ of the organization. It has so many negative implications that it requires another article focusing just on this. Here I’d like to stress only the lack of integrity of team members who cannot go in the a right direction, when the direction is not clearly understood or even shown to them.

The common result is that, as managers, we assume that people will do things the way we expect them to be done. Guess what, in many cases, tasks will not be done the way we’ve intended them to be done or quite often will not be done at all. Why? Because we did not specifically tell our employees to do them (or did not tell them how) and with a lack of the bigger picture they could not have figured it out themselves. We have only assumed they will know.

This is not to say that we should be explaining every single task step by step. That is not effective either, but unless you see actions that prove the task is being carried out, it is safer not to assume that it is being understood, accepted or about to be done. This advice is especially useful because it applies not only to your own reports, but also to your bosses, customers, potential leads etc.

Have you ever sent an email to a potential customer and then wrongfully assumed that they have read and understood the message and now are only internally processing the purchase of your product or service? Why assume if you can check? There are tools like Mailtrack that would empower your google based emails with the knowledge of when and how intensively your emails are being read. One less thing to assume and without asking too many questions. Plus, you can get back to the addressee as soon as you see that they’ve opened an email some time later. That’s the moment when this person is thinking of you and that can be a perfect moment for a follow-up call.

How not to assume in team relations? Acknowledgment of your emailed instructions being read would not be enough here. Feedback loop & paraphrasing are the answers. When you’re instructing someone to perform a task, make sure that they’ve received and understood it by asking them to paraphrase. Let them explain to you how they understood the task using their own words. Paraphrasing is a powerful tool that enables you to avoid wrong assumptions and the many consequences of these.

Having said all that, it is wrong to always be saying ‘do not assume’, as there is one important assumption that I would encourage you to do as often as you can. It is about assuming positive intentions. People by nature are good. By definition you are not at war with the world and it is the common interest of many to be good to each other. That should be more than obvious in a team, but is often forgotten, especially by new and inexperienced managers.

I have made the mistake of wrong assumptions so many times in the past, that it now additionally incentivises me to share the approach of assuming positive intentions. There were numerous situations where a task given to the individual was not carried out as I have expected. It is natural to give feedback about it and this is the right thing to do. Key is how you do it in order for it to be effective. It is good to assume from the very beginning that the person had good intentions, but there was something that caused the end result to be wrong. First, it is easier to accept negative feedback when you are hard on a problem and soft on a person. Second, in most cases the task was completed that way and not the other because of a reason. Most of these reasons are through the lack of seeing the bigger picture, a lack of experience or some external indicators that it actually should be performed that way. It was hardly ever a malicious action of an individual who was tasked with that action.

There is one more negative consequence of not assuming positive intentions. It is your authority. There are a few things that hurt employees/partners (and your authority) more than wrong assumptions about their intentions. How would you feel if, once you perform a task, you would be told off by your boss where in fact the task was never explained the way he/she later indicated it was expected to be completed? The authority is not set in stone by the job title or the reporting structure. It is being continuously built by showing expertise in our field and the right approach to the management of teams. That is why it is far better to assume positive intentions.

Last but not least, admitting to an error is never easy. That goes the same for your employees when they do something wrong, as well as to you as a manger when you have to (and should) apologize for assuming wrong. By assuming positive intentions you are also helping yourself. Less stress, better day, happier people around you.

In other words, paraphrasing: do not assume anything but positive intentions.

Have a great day!

Bolesław Drapella – ex CEO of AirHelp Poland, Founder & Mentor at SaunaGrow.com