The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Darja Gutnick, co-founder of Bunch.ai, a Berlin-based startup focused on empowering leaders to manage their company culture using data. Gutnick discussed the opportunities to use data to better under organizational psychology and how managers could use their new AI leadership coach to create more effective teams.
This interview has been edited.
Daniel Castro: Why did you decide to create a technology startup focused on leadership?
Darja Gutnick: I didn’t really set out to do a technology startup! Technology was always just a means to an end for us. I am a psychologist by training, and I’ve always been interested in the overlaps between the scientific, psychological, and the business worlds. Because of that, I’ve often found myself as a contact point for founders, managers, and my wider network for all topics related to team building, culture, and organizational psychology just because I had that background.
A few years ago when I moved to Berlin after living in Argentina (where I ran my own travel startup), I met a lot of people working in tech businesses here and noticed that there was a gap in knowledge around teams and people dynamics in startups—I got a lot of questions about how to build teams and lead people effectively.
I started to help out my friends by sharing resources, books, and posts. I started curating content for them based on whatever I could find in research papers, whatever I had learned previously, or whatever I had been teaching myself over the years. And I still do this! At some point, people started encouraging me to try turning that work into a business.
The decision to make a technology-enabled product was all about the people we wanted to support. I knew that all leaders encounter “people” challenges at some point, and as a consultant, you can only serve a small percentage of them. I wanted to take a more bottom-up approach to scale all the scientific and practitioners’ knowledge out there to a wider audience.
Castro: The science of building effective teams has been a topic for a while, for example, companies have been using Myers-Brigg Personality Tests for decades. What are some of the new developments in this field that weren’t possible 10-15 years ago?
Gutnick: The first major change is data, which has enabled the scientific and business worlds to better understand how people really interact.
Sandy Pentland’s research from MIT’s Human Dynamics Lab is a great example, where a group of scientists researched how people physically move when they work in buildings and between buildings. Their study was able to really examine what participants spent their time doing, how that impacted the way people felt, and how they performed at work. In the business world, there’s a lot of development happening in this new field of people analytics where it’s become possible to gain a much deeper understanding of what’s actually happening in the swarm of human collaboration.
Another interesting change is in recommender technology: the way it’s possible to find relevant information within a large body of knowledge.
Think about how easy it is to run a Google search for anything these days, or how Netflix knows exactly what to recommend you watch next. At Bunch, we believe that recommender technology is extremely promising for our field. In fact, our AI leadership coach is basically just a specialized recommendation machine: there are the inputs on what our users say are their current challenges, what their data footprint shows, and then we can use that to offer the leadership tips you need, exactly when you need it. Like with Netflix, the tech isn’t the star of the show, it’s just working in the background to enable the perfect experience.
Finally, the other huge change is in how we learn in a digital world: the informal ways that people share knowledge and resources with their colleagues via wikis or shared documents. There’s a lot of unstructured information out there, as well as a lot of on-demand question-asking happening in chat apps or video calls.
This provides some unique challenges in a world of working from home. If we don’t figure out how to absorb, remember and internalize stuff that our colleagues are telling us, we will run into big trouble. If you have too much unstructured information, people start losing bits and pieces and there are loose ends. I think you’ll see a lot more tools popping up for this, but it’s also something we’ve thought about for our own products: how do we help with this in our own way?
Castro: You are set to release an AI-enabled leadership coach. What do you think a digital leadership coach might achieve that a human leadership coach might not?
Gutnick: This is a question we get quite a lot because the word “coach” is loaded—it has a lot of different meanings associated with it. I think it’s important to say that the Bunch AI leadership coach is not actually supposed to replace every coach in the world. I do believe there’s a role for face-to-face human communication in coaching.
But a digital coach has a lot to offer that a regular coach can’t. The feedback loop is much faster in terms of understanding a problem, providing options, and evaluating how well something worked. An AI coach is available 24/7 and works around both your schedule and your current needs. It can process much more information and do it much faster. It never forgets to follow up. And it’s incapable of judging you—which I think is a key thing for many leaders.
For example, let’s say you have an all-hands meeting with your team coming up today, and you have to communicate some difficult news.
An AI coach can quickly give you a few best practices and mental models for how to deliver the message and address concerns—all in 2-minute chunks that you can access in between meetings or while you drink your morning coffee.
A digital coach can also leverage data in smart ways. For example, it could proactively reach out to you and remind you that you’ve got all-hands in your calendar and need to prepare. That’s not something a regular coach can realistically do on a day-to-day basis, but a simple calendar integration makes it quite easy for an AI coach to do.
Castro: What type of impact do you hope to see from your service? What are your metrics for success? And what advice do you have for those who are new to company leadership?
Gutnick: In the big picture, we’ll see our job as done once everyone in the world has a great working relationship with their manager. As a result, every team member is engaged and motivated. All teams collaborate well together, communicate effectively, and trust each other.
Zooming in on the coming months, the COVID-19 crisis has obviously presented a huge problem for leaders around the world, so we can help them through that. We plan to scale our coaching service up to 10,000 managers in the next few months and up to 100,000 managers in the next year. We’re pretty focused on the tech industry right now because it’s what we know and it’s a sector where a lot of managers struggle because the work is so cross-functional and largely digital. But eventually, we want to serve leaders across all sectors.
In terms of the advice we have for those who are new to leadership: be humble and focus on growing your abilities as a leader just as fast as you want your business to grow. You have to recognize that speed of learning is everything, and that applies to you too.
The advice I’d give to teams, team members, board members, the media, and the rest of the world regarding leadership is this: don’t forget that leadership is a very human thing. Just because someone is ‘in charge’ doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes. Failure is all over the place; mistakes are made every day. Leaders get stressed, anxious, or scared just like anyone else, so it’s important to view leadership through that very human lens. Leaders need space to learn, and they need support too.
Castro: Have you considered ways your coaching insights or team analytics might empower more than just the company executive or company managers? How do you envision helping them?
Gutnick: Great question! I don’t think a leader is someone who needs to have a management title. Leadership is about the behavior you display, not your pay grade. So we provide AI coaching to anyone in the organization who wants to step up and help a group get from A to B.
About 65% factually are managers of some kind, though it varies a lot from C-level executives, down to team leaders. But we also have team members using the service because they too want to learn about topics like motivation, engagement, creating a vision, making people feel safe, and performance.
Of course, in the end, quality of leadership dramatically affects the experience of everyone at work. We’ve all heard that saying that “people don’t quit jobs, they quit their boss.” If our coach helps improve those relationships, we can make the world of work a better place for tens of millions of people one day.