5 Soft Skills Critical to Future Performance

By Lisa Bodell

Creativity is emerging as the most important leadership quality for success. The business world is shifting from exclusively valuing left-brain skills, such as subject expertise and technical competency, to seeking individuals with right-brain skills, such as adaptability and imagination.

America is moving out of the Information Age and into the Conceptual Age, where creative thinking will become as essential as logical thinking.

According to Daniel Pink, who coined the term “Conceptual Age,” three catalysts are responsible for the era change: Asian outsourcing, automation, and abundance. For the Western workforce to compete with inexpensive overseas labor, automated computers, and technology, and demand for products that move beyond function to enhancing the meaning of our lives, we must develop right-brain skills.

Desireable Skills

There’s been evidence that the Conceptual Age already is well under way. For decades, big organizations that have benefited from analytical and functional left-brain aptitudes are now finding themselves in need of softer, right-brain skills. Fiscal responsibility and global knowledge no longer are sufficient to maintain competitive advantage.

So which soft skills will employees and organizations need in the coming years? They are the skills that empower organizations to challenge the status quo and look into the future. They turn employees into visionaries and help them seek new growth opportunities. They enable organizations to anticipate the blessings and burdens of change. The book, Kill the Company, explores the five most critical skills of the Conceptual Age—and simple ways to cultivate them.

Future Skill #1: Strategic Imagination

Today’s employees are so mired in busywork that their ability to visualize the bigger picture has atrophied. But tomorrow’s employees and leaders must learn to “dream with purpose,” which means actively imagining future possibilities and creating scenarios to act on them.

To imagine how things can be done differently, we need to think differently. This means breaking our routine and introducing new sources of information. Take a different route to work. Go to a concert or show that’s outside your usual repertoire. Get your information from a different news source. Invite unusual suspects to your next meeting.

Spur your employees toward strategic imagination by providing resources that fuel future thinking, such as Innovation Watch, Trend Watching, and TED Talks. Follow up by inviting them to envision their business unit in the year 2020. Ask them to draw their vision—create a magazine cover or an org chart, for example—and then lead a discussion about the myriad perspectives informing their collective vision.

Future Skill #2: Provocative Inquiry

Transformative power lies in asking questions that make us rethink the obvious, and the ability to ask smart and often unsettling questions is known as provocative inquiry. One of my favorites is “What business are we in anyway?” When Starbucks asked itself this question, the answer was transformative: “We aren’t in the coffee business serving people. We’re in the people business serving coffee.”

A provocative inquiry often begins with how, which, why, or if, and is specific without limiting imagination. A provocative version of “Who has an idea for improving our product or service?” would be “If we hosted a forum called ‘How Our Products and Services Are Terrible,’ what topics would be on the main stage?” An equally effective version is “Which two things could our competitors do to render our product or services irrelevant?”

Spark inquiry by sending team members a handful of questions such as “What are the unshakable beliefs about client or customer needs in our industry—what if the opposite were true?” and “If you had five minutes with our CEO, what would you ask that would make her rethink our business?”

By encouraging curiosity, you set the stage for dialogue that supports solutions and innovation.

Future Skill #3: Creative Problem Solving

To survive the fierce competition of the Conceptual Age, employees will need creative problem-solving skills: the application of best practices from unexpected sources to create fresh solutions. Inventor James Dyson exemplified this skill when he applied the mechanics of a local sawmill—a giant cyclone-shaped dust collector—to a household vacuum. The result? The bestselling vacuum in the United Kingdom.

Hone this reflex in employees at your next meeting by using an exercise called RE:think. Offer people an everyday object (for example, a paper clip or scissors) and ask them to pretend they’ve never encountered it before. What does this new product do? What are its benefits and how would they position it? Such activities will strengthen your team’s ability to approach problems in unconventional ways.

Another method for cultivating creative problem solving is called “forced connections.” Introduce it in a stalled brainstorm—which typically happens after 20 minutes of ideation—by asking the group to select a random item in the room, such as a pen. Ask for five or more characteristics of the object (blue, detachable cap, pocketsize) and write these on a whiteboard.

Now choose three of these characteristics to apply to your initial brainstorm topic: Is there a market for a pocketsize version of your product? Is there value in a detachable component? These prompts will stretch your thinking in unpredictable—and often productive—directions.

Future Skill #4: Agility

Change is the only constant, which means a Plan B—and C, D, and E—are truly critical. Quick thinking and resourcefulness in the face of unexpected situations is the very definition of agility. Individuals who confidently handle unforeseen scenarios will become extraordinarily valuable in the Conceptual Age.

A recent example of agility in action is Nissan. As other automakers responded to rising oil costs and environmental concerns by branching into hybrid vehicles, CEO Carlos Ghosn guided Nissan down a different, more expensive and time-consuming path.

Despite the industry’s lack of electric-car technology and skepticism from all sides, Nissan debuted the world’s first affordable electric car in 2011. The Nissan Leaf launched as the only zero-emissions car on the market and has since received numerous global awards.

Cultivate an agile mindset by leading your teams through a “wild card” scenario. Using a current project, ask the group to present a brief project plan. Then break into smaller teams and challenge each to succeed despite wild cards such as 50 percent less budget, or half the research and development time, or severely restrained resources or technology.

Planning for success under constraint helps employees gain agility and prepare for change before it is forced on them.

Future Skill #5: Resilience

Building on agility, employees also will need to demonstrate resilience, which translates to tenacity and courage in the face of obstacles. Tim Westergren, founder of Pandora, is the very portrait of resilience.

His idea for streaming radio unfortunately coincided with the dot-com crash, which meant investors were scarce. During a three-year period, he pitched Pandora to 300 venture capitalists—all of whom rejected the idea. Instead of giving up, he worked for years without pay and convinced others to do the same. Eventually, funding was secured and Pandora went public in 2011, closing its first day of trading with a market cap of $2.8 billion.

Teach your teams resilience by practicing the art of “impossible to possible.” Ask groups to write answers to these questions: What would a customer say we should do for them but never would? What would make us the industry leader—although hell would have to freeze over for it to happen? What impossible thing would make your job infinitely better?

Then, ask teams to swap lists and find a way to turn their list of impossible things into possibilities. I assure you that people will rise to the challenge. This exercise truly awakens the competitive spirit and gives rise to a solution-driven mindset.

As we seek to transform our cultures to compete in the Conceptual Age, our employees and leaders must demonstrate more than knowledge or technical expertise; they must cultivate new skill sets. The valued leaders and successful employees of the Conceptual Age will be firing on all cylinders—and many will involve right-brain functions. To avoid extinction, we must fuel the kind of daily future thinking that will enable our teams to conceptualize—and handle—the demands of a new era.

15 Interview Questions to Hire Employees with Tomorrow’s Skills

The list below, compiled by highly effective and creative business leaders, offers interview questions for determining a candidate’s capacity for success in the Conceptual Era.

Strategic imagination questions

  • What systems, methodologies, or protocols were changed at your current or previous job as a result of your suggestions? How did these changes benefit the organization?
  • What inspires you?
  • What new customer segments will emerge in five years? How will customers five years from now discover our product?

Provocative inquiry questions

  • What would our target market say about our offerings compared with the leading competitor’s offerings?
  • If you came onboard and needed to hire a group of innovators for this company, what traits would you look for?
  • What two things could our competitors do to make our product or services irrelevant?

Creative problem-solving questions

  • What steps do you take when you need to make an immediate decision but there’s little data available?
  • Share an example of when you tried to solve a problem with a totally different approach than what is traditionally used. What was the result?
  • In which situations do you seek the help of others to make decisions?

Agility questions

  • What do you do when priorities shift quickly? Give an example.
  • Share an example of a time when there was a decision to be made and procedures were not in place. What did you do? What was the outcome?
  • Tell me about a decision you made when you were under pressure.

Resilience questions

  • Share an example of when you failed at something. How did you then proceed?
  • When you are considering a new idea but unsure of an outcome, what do you do?
  • You’ve presented a great idea to management but they’re not buying in. What’s your response?

About the Author:

Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink, an internationally recognized innovation research and training firm. Lisa founded her company on the principle that with the right knowledge and tools, everyone has the power to innovate. As a leading innovator and cognitive learning expert, she has devised training programs for hundreds of innovators at leading companies such as 3M, GE, and Johnson & Johnson.

Reprinted from T&D Magazine


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