Leading business schools and think-tanks predict that creativity and critical thinking will be increasingly critical and sought-after skills in the future of work. Rapidly transforming commercial landscapes require agility, innovation and consistently fresh perspectives and approaches.
Yet developing and honing these skills isn’t so easy.
In many schools, the Arts are increasingly shunned in favour of STEM (science/tech/engineering/maths) subjects. Education can be rather ’spoon-fed’ at times - students are taught how to regurgitate data points and a precise method of essay construction designed to pass exams. So target and results-oriented have we become that there is little room left for free-flow debate, something which is absolutely vital for successful complex problem-solving.
Our lived environments no longer support or encourage critical thinking and creativity either. At home and at work we face constant disruption - beholden to the flashing lights and beeps of our smartphones and devices. In fact, recent research data from the US suggests our internet habits are entirely addictive, and are significantly eroding our capacity for deep thinking and reflection.
Developing critical thinking and creativity as skills to compliment increasing workplace automation won’t come easy to many. While both can be learned, the acquisition of either will require applied commitment and space away from distraction in order to focus.
But here’s another thing. Creative and critical thinking require time and space to allow for fresh ideas to bubble to the surface. I’ve been blogging now for 18 months and I can say with certainty that writing doesn’t happen prescriptively; it happens in ebbs and flows, and inspiration arrives at the most unexpected times. Most successful writers will support this. Writing is just one example of creativity and I’m learning through experience to sit in the discomfort of an empty page. It’s not easy.
In the workplace, however, the challenge amplifies. The modern work environment is 100% results-driven; each and every one of our workplace objectives is tightly measured for success. Business managers and leaders are adept at quantifying every single input in order to be able to measure the associated output. True fact.
So what happens, then, when the time and space that are so vital for new ideas to surface and flourish can’t be measured? How much time is needed for critical thinking? Will organisations put a time limit on it?
Transitioning to a new work landscape, where critical thinking and creativity are embraced is going to be a MASSIVE (and in some cases, insurmountable) challenge for many organisations and even more managers. In addition to changing mindset, we need to find new ways to measure progress; non-financial yardsticks that provide a framework within which ideas and experiments can flourish. Hand in hand with this comes the necessary realisation that not all ideas turn into tangible, profitable outcomes. Mistakes will and MUST be made, in order for us to learn, pivot and grow. While experimentation is easier to embrace in small and lean start-ups, businesses that are committed to quarterly reporting of earnings will undoubtedly struggle to shift mindset, both in terms of how activity is measured and how the mistakes that are critical to learning and innovation are justified.
I don’t have the answers to how these necessary transitions will play out. My best guess, however, is that stakeholders, including shareholders, will have to adapt to a new landscape of reduced profits, accepting instead that break-even is better than the inevitable commercial atrophy that WILL occur if innovation and creativity aren’t allowed to become the new normal.
We have great challenges ahead of us. We’re headed towards a perfect storm. We have to learn ourselves out of the commercial situation we’ve found ourselves in.
We predict that mindfulness and meditation at work will become regular features, as means by which to facilitate the creative thinking required to maintain competitive edge. That these practices will help reduce work-related stress and hopefully restore mental health along the way is an added bonus.
In the meantime, the sooner we can all acknowledge the new skillsets, and better still, what organisational transitions will be required in order to achieve them, the better.