Problem solving is not just a “soft skill”

Critical thinking and problem solving skills for the future of work
Problem solving and critical thinking consistently rank among the top skills employers value most

Business leaders want strategic and critical thinking skills “more than anything”, according to this recent article from Fortune.com

In the report quoted in that article, 54% of junior employees said they are “trying to further cultivate their leadership and management skills” and a similar number want to “improve their communication chops”. Yep, you read that correctly! Anyone who has worked for a good number of years will immediately identify the issue. Between the lines, one can plainly see that the corporate world seems to reward perceived “leadership” qualities (mainly narcissism, copious use of buzzwords & the writing of appropriately terse emails), as well as people who talk a good game, whilst not actually having two brain cells to rub together. Yes, the author is in a pretty cynical mood, but stick with me.. Once we identify the issue honestly, we can begin to solve it. And good solutions are available!

As per the article, the demand for individuals with strong problem-solving skills, analytical and critical thinking abilities has never been higher. As automation and artificial intelligence continue to reshape industries and job roles, employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of these cognitive skills in navigating complex challenges and driving innovation.

Are business leaders finally waking up to the realization that the “skills gap” is one one of real, concrete and transferable skills that can be hired for, as well as nurtured and trained?

Indeed, this seems to be the case. But despite their crucial role in the modern workplace, there remains a common misconception that problem solving and critical thinking are merely soft skills. In this article, we’ll explore why problem solving and critical thinking should be viewed as real, measurable and concrete tools, rather than a “nice-to-have”.

The Fundamental Misunderstanding: What are Problem Solving and Critical Thinking really?

Before delving into why problem solving and critical thinking are not soft skills, let’s first clarify what these terms actually mean. Problem solving can be defined as the ability to identify, analyze, and devise effective solutions to complex issues or obstacles. It requires a systematic approach, creativity, and the capacity to evaluate various alternatives to reach the most accurate solution.

Critical thinking is the process of objectively analyzing information, evaluating arguments, and making reasoned judgments. It involves questioning assumptions, recognizing biases, and drawing logical conclusions based on evidence and sound reasoning.

Despite their distinct definitions and cognitive demands, we have noticed that problem solving and critical thinking are often (erroneously) lumped together with “soft skills” such as communication and teamwork.

Soft skills are primarily interpersonal or social in nature, while problem solving and critical thinking are purely cognitive abilities. So how did they end up being confused?

Perhaps it is because critical thinking and problem solving are seen as nebulous and somewhat subjective. One could say one works well in a team, for example, but one’s teammates might have something else to say about that. Similarly, the author thinks we all pretty much like to believe we can solve a problem! I mean, who does not think they are basically intelligent?

However, as hinted above, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. You don’t necessarily see the skills themselves, you observe the results of someone having those skills. For example, Kepner-Tregoe Program Leaders (certified trainers) applied their expertise to help resolve the issue of “spongy” parking brakes on cargo planes in this particular case study. We know they did so successfully because it accelerated the root cause being identified.

Undoubtedly, there is a need for “soft skills” – we need to communicate, to play well with others, to persuade etc. Those skills can help us succeed with our colleagues and clients, and many of them can equally be developed, if they are not innate.

However, it is simply not the case that problem solving, critical thinking, and analytical abilities are soft skills as there is nothing social or interpersonal about them; after all, many very antisocial people excel at problem solving, so it is just not the same thing!

The Importance of Problem Solving and Critical Thinking in the Future of Work

As we look towards the future of work, it’s clear that automation and technological advancements will continue to reshape the labor market. While certain routine tasks may become automated, the demand for human skills such as problem solving and critical thinking will only increase. It has often been said that it is not AI (Artificial Intelligence) that will take your job, but someone who knows how to use AI better than you! It has almost become a cliché, because there is truth in it.

Problem solving and critical thinking are essential for navigating the complexities of a globalized economy, where businesses face multifaceted challenges that require innovative solutions. Whether it’s devising strategies to address market disruptions, optimizing operational processes, or solving customer problems, individuals with strong problem-solving skills and critical thinking abilities are better equipped to thrive.

Moreover, as the nature of work continues to evolve, so too do the qualities that employers seek in their workforce. According to numerous studies and industry reports, problem solving and critical thinking consistently rank among the top skills employers value most. In a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum, problem solving and critical thinking were identified as two of the top three skills that employers believe will increase in prominence by 2025.

This last point is obviously “music to our ears” here at Kepner-Tregoe, given that our methodologies and processes can help leaders, teams and individuals to develop those very skills. If you would like to know more, take a look at our Problem Solving and Decision Making training

Potential, talent and practice

What is Education for?

There isn’t only one type of critical thinking and it’s not only the preserve of STEM subjects. The author once had to write an essay at university about a theme in a certain novel. I’ll never forget my biochemist boyfriend’s suggestion (serious!) that I should count the number of instances of this word in the book. He was very smart, but in the world of literary criticism, such an approach would be categorized as completely moronic!

But my subject was just as evidence-driven as his; it was just more about seeing patterns and making connections, reading between the lines. Not making things up, but using what you can find to make a case.

So much to say that education in general should not be devalued in favor of work experience and skills alone. It is sad that higher education is regarded as pretty much worthless, especially considering how much it often costs. So often, we fail to make the connection between education and its actual purpose, which is to train you how to think, not to just fill your head with knowledge you will likely never need again.

That is a whole different article of course, which may be written one day. Suffice to say, any good education will hopefully provide a person with solid analytical and problem solving skills, whether it is physics or marketing, geography or IT.

How can organizations identify candidates with good problem solving, decision making and critical thinking abilities?

According to the article in Fortune.com quoted earlier, even the most tech-forward leaders like Apple CEO Tim Cook have praised “soft skills” which go hand in hand with creative and strategic thinking. In 2022, Cook said he seeks out the ability to collaborate, creativity, and curiosity in new hires above all else. “Those are the things that we look for in people, and it’s been a very good formula for us,” he said. “We look for people that think differently, that can look at a problem and not be caught up in the dogma of how that problem has always been viewed.”

But how do you assess these skills?

At Kepner-Tregoe our consultants go through a somewhat rigorous “assessment center” style interview. This is somewhat specific to us, because our consultants absolutely need to be capable of understanding the processes outlined in the New Rational Manager, which form the basis of the Kepner-Tregoe approach. They should also be able to apply this way of thinking to solve a real issue in one of our case study examples.

But there are some other ways that interviews can be improved to look for critical thinking aptitude. Why not:

  • Think up a role play similar to a situation the person would handle in the job, for example responding to a customer issue
  • Think of examples of situations the person may come across and ask how they would handle them, for example what questions would they ask? What would they do first?

A more practical approach is also in the author’s opinion, better for neurodivergent or more introverted individuals who may find a “real” task more manageable than simply being asked unstructured, or confusing questions that seem more intended to test for how one would fare as a political candidate. Your greatest weakness? Puh-lease!

Conclusion

In conclusion, problem solving and critical thinking are not merely soft skills – they are essential cognitive abilities that are fundamental to the future of work. In a world where uncertainty, complexity, and rapid change are the new norm, individuals who possess strong problem-solving skills and critical thinking abilities will be well-positioned to succeed and thrive.

By recognizing the importance of these skills and investing in their development, organizations can cultivate a workforce that is adaptable, innovative, and equipped to tackle the challenges of tomorrow.

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