The Rapid Evolution of AI and Its Impact on Leadership

Already, artificial intelligence is impacting how leaders approach their roles and guide their teams. In fact, McKinsey reports that roughly one-third of companies use generative AI in at least one business function. Generative AI, the newest iteration of artificial intelligence, uses neural networks to identify patterns and transform data into new texts, images, and even proteins.

The rapid evolution of these generative tools has shifted the future of AI in business. Many previously held assumptions around robotics and replacements for manual workers have been shattered. Instead, AI’s natural language processing potential is changing how we think about creativity at work. Leaders are now peering ahead at a future in which they work alongside AI, almost as if it’s a new team member.

How Will Generative AI Impact Teams?

In the coming months and years, leaders will need to be aware of how the evolution of generative AI business applications is impacting their teams. If AI isn’t replacing workers, what is happening instead? Is AI a colleague? Is it still a technology that people can opt in or out of?

Let’s use an example. A marketing team might have employed 10 designers to generate photos to send to influencers just a year ago. This team of designers may have produced a clutch of photos weekly, say 20 good designs. Now, generative AI can produce 3,000 photos weekly after processing the trendiest videos and images online. From those photos, the team of designers can then produce the top 20 much faster by catapulting their work from the AI images and putting on the finishing touches.

Because the AI can do the bulk of the work to read existing images and produce countless results, the marketing team now only needs two designers to produce the same amount of (or more) designs per week. Moreover, the generated images are trendier and more eye-catching since AI can process the most popular images and videos weekly. This showcases how generative AI can enhance human labor. At first glance, it sounds like it could replace it, too. But can it really, or will it just change how human labor looks after AI’s assistance?

The Shifting Role of Creatives

If AI has somewhat taken over the time-costly task of generating images, the logical question becomes, what about the designers? Should a leader really roll up their design team in favor of AI? What skill set should designers have in the age of AI?

Obviously, designers no longer need to draw a lot of images. Instead, designers with better eyes for beauty will thrive in the age of AI since they are more suitable for selecting images. With AI as a part of the team, the designers are still essential, but their work becomes less about a creative hand and more about a creative eye. The designers are still essential to vet the work created by the AI, potentially refining it by hand with their skills or curating the request for the AI to get closer to what the client wants. AI can’t self-regulate to do these tasks, especially right now. The designer’s work then evolves to be assisted and even springboarded by AI. However, AI cannot replace valuable human labor.

What This Means for Leadership

Leadership’s role may seem secure within this shifting network. However, leaders will need to adapt, too. In the case of the design team, leaders will need to take a bird’s eye view to manage the balance of human creativity and AI productivity. A leader must understand the processes on both sides, see where the true value lies, and iterate those processes to enhance their value.

For the marketing team example, the leader of that company will need to decide whether to cut down on the size of the design team or scale up now that it can handle a higher capacity. Moreover, they need to understand how AI’s costs are scaling differently compared to human capital.

For example, in the past, having a new designer working on a new line of products was costly. Leaders had to either give the designer time to learn or hire new designers who had the experience. However, such scaling in AI will become instantaneous and costless since the AI system has already trained with these images. On the contrary, if the leader wants to design an entirely new set of products, such as Dyson’s new headphones with air purification, human designers may be able to think more quickly than the AI system since the AI system hasn’t seen training data on this new category.

Leaders need to understand the differences in the costs and benefits of AI productivity versus human productivity. Given the rapid evolution of AI, this task is tremendous.

What Is a Leader’s Role in Evolving AI?

The impact of AI on business means that leaders won’t be able to just enfold it into their companies’ workflows. They will also need to manage their teams according to how AI shows up in their businesses, such as addressing the copyright issues that come with using AI. Leaders’ roles will continue to shift as AI shifts.

It’s important to note that these shifts will not be annual; there will be monthly, even weekly, updates, given how fast generative AI has evolved in the last few months. Leaders must be ready to change quicker, make more data-driven decisions, and learn to communicate those changes to their teams in a way that illuminates and inspires rather than threatens.

What Strategies Can Leaders Use to Evolve Wisely With AI?

AI’s evolution is coming thick and fast, so the challenge for leaders is to stay on top of their approaches. They don’t have to understand everything or be a ChatGPT expert to successfully guide their team into new iterations of work. But they will need to strategize.

• Embrace a learning mindset.

Business leaders have been used to thinking quite slowly (relative to today) to carefully come to a decision, but today’s learning with AI happens daily. Leaders can embrace this if they choose. Go back to those student days of studying papers, try to stay abreast of the latest innovations, and keep talking to friends and competitors about what they’re learning.

• Get ready for extra time.

As AI evolves, changes that may feel sudden at first will soon be incorporated into daily life. Innovations compound, meaning that handling tedious tasks becomes easier, and the speed of that development increases exponentially. Leaders who embrace AI productivity are also more likely to handle agile adaptation to future development.

• Manage people’s expectations.

A leader can examine their workflows all they like, but if team members aren’t engaging with AI, then the organization will close its mind to new things. Leaders must tell the story of AI in a way that involves the team and encourages an open mind. How could a leader paint the picture of enhanced productivity in a way that helps team members dream about future goals?

Generative AI business applications are already changing how we work, even as technology evolves with daily ferocity. A leader who is ready to quicken and expand their learning mindset will be more able to adapt to the future of AI in business, but they will need to consult with their human team at every stage. The key to managing the impact of AI on business will be balancing human creativity and AI-driven creativity and finding harmony between them. So, if you’re wondering how to implement AI in your business, talking to your team about it might be the best place to start.

Featured Image Credit: Austin Distel; Unsplash; Thank you!

Dennis Zhang

Associate Professor of Supply Chain, Operations, and Technology & Associate Professor of Marketing

Dennis Zhang is the associate professor of supply chain, operations, and technology and the associate professor of marketing at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis.

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