This A.I. company has discovered how to unlock creativity—even with employees stuck at home

February 24, 2021, 10:00 AM UTC
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Blythe Towal, a senior manager of engineering for Shield AI.
Courtesy of Shield AI

It was more than a year ago when Blythe Towal, senior manager of engineering for Shield AI, started work on a product for the San Diego–based company. Shield AI makes self-driving software for the defense industry and is used by the U.S. military in conflict zones. Towal heads a team that, among other duties, trains robots to detect human beings (versus a tree, building, or some other object). She planned a series of exercises to “teach” the device. 

Then came the pandemic. Assembling large groups of humans, and different looking ones at that, became impossible. 

“The network homes in on the essentials of a person,” said Towal, explaining that machine learning often requires large data sets. “Three individuals, that was not going to be sufficient. And so we sat down and asked, ‘How do we get more variety?’”

The answer came by putting three members of her team (a limited number owing to COVID restrictions) in wigs and costumes to make them look like different people. Sometimes, the team would bulk up to appear heavier or taller. The product, known as the Nova 2 and marketed as able to navigate challenging communication environments and “complex subterranean and multistory buildings,” remains on track to launch next month.

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Shield AI’s Scene Understanding team virtually collaborating to finalize features for the soon-to-be-released Nova 2.
Courtesy of Shield AI

It’s really hard to be creative right now. Many companies entered lockdown and working from home with an eye toward business continuity. As they near the one-year mark, it’s becoming clear that is not enough, namely because there’s no “business as normal” waiting on the other side of this. No company, human, or robot is untouched from having to radically reinvent how to work. 

Yet working conditions right now are hardly optimal. Three-quarters of U.S. employees are experiencing some form of burnout, according to Spring Health, a mental-health services provider. A study released in November on boredom cautions against “management decisions that optimize efficiency over well-being…Both too much and too little challenge at work was associated with boredom, and many people struggle to find work meaningful.”

A Leesman survey of 145,000 workers globally found 28% of those working from home said they were unable to collaborate on creative work. The concern remains even as offices begin opening up again since employers largely still plan to offer remote working in some form. 

CEOs are nervous as they ponder how working from home affects output, innovation, and productivity in the long term, according to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economics professor. “Creativity is the biggest single issue,” he told the Financial Times. “New ideas and new customers and new segments and new business models [are] all the CEOs are concerned about.”

Thus, the Shield AI example is notable, as are the conditions that companies like it can foster to inspire creativity. “There’s a lower bar for doing things differently, especially if they will make something possible that wouldn’t have been possible,” said Towal. “We had to think outside the box to get there. And so I think we’ve started to be a little bit more creative in other aspects as well, because we saw a very clear example of how we were just as successful doing it this other way.”

Asked to dissect further, Towal and other Shield leaders (and who better than an A.I. company to tap into the best, irreplaceable traits of humans?) offer the following pieces of advice to keep workers creative: 

  • Good ideas come from everywhere: Remote work means meetings are different—but more democratized. “An advantage of a virtual meeting is that it’s difficult to talk over someone,” Towal said. “You get more equal opportunities for people to contribute.”
  • Overcommunicate: Shield AI’s open office plan allowed for constant collaboration. In remote working environments, colleagues took to instant messaging to compensate. Initially, Towal said, it felt “like a distraction.” Then she rethought her reaction: “You have to unlearn that and think of it as overcommunicating.”
  • Connect: The company has a monthly virtual game day and all-hands meetings on Monday and Friday. While basic information is dispensed here, it’s also an opportunity for occasional bonding exercises like “employee fun facts.”
  • Values matter: Cofounder Brandon Tseng cites his own background and skills developed as a U.S. Navy SEAL. Lately, he’s returned to the need for poise. “It’s easy to be poised when times are good. It’s hard to be poised when times are challenging,” said Tseng, who serves as chief operating officer. “With the pandemic, it’s very challenging times.”
  • Project energy: If you are leading a team and feeling down in the dumps, they will definitely absorb the negative energy. Project joy, optimism, positivity. Invoking his time in the military, Tseng recalled: “The best leaders are ridiculously energetic, almost comically so.” 

Together, though, no tips or tweaks can compensate for the most important aspect of keeping employees motivated and creative right now: a company’s mission. 

“When smart, talented, hardworking people have a wealth of opportunities, what do they seek at the end of the day?” asked Tseng. “It’s purpose. Everything must emanate from a common mission and a common set of values.”

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