Every day, the amount of new information about any given subject is increasing. An employee’s learning potential now involves more than just technical ability or expertise: it includes the capacity to assimilate new data and reformulate current modes of thinking. After researching several of the most innovative organizations, my new book, Kill the Company, identifies the five most vital skills of tomorrow’s employees and simple exercises to build them.
Strategic imagination: This skill refers to dreaming with purpose. Today’s employee is so mired in busywork that his or her ability to think long-term has waned. While managing day-to-day obligations, employees must actively imagine future possibilities and create scenarios to act on them. Spur teams toward this mindset by providing resources that fuel future thinking, such as LongBets.com, Springwise.com and NewScientist.com.
Provocative inquiry: The ability to ask smart and often unsettling questions is known as provocative inquiry. In the quest for the right answer, we’ve forgotten how to ask the right questions. Transformative power lies in asking questions that make us rethink the obvious. Spark inquiry in the ranks by sending team members a handful of questions like: “What are the unshakable beliefs about client/customer needs in our industry, and 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 fan the fires that create new ideas and improve current offerings.
Creative problem solving: This involves the application of best practices from offbeat sources to create unexpected connections and fresh solutions. The result is often a classic “a-ha” moment. In the consumer product category, James Dyson exemplifies this skill. Dyson applied the mechanics of a local sawmill — a giant cyclone-shaped dust collector — to create a bagless vacuum that became a best-seller in the U.K.
Hone this reflex in employees at your next status meeting by utilizing an exercise called RE:think. Offer employees several everyday objects such as paper clips or scissors and ask them to imagine they’ve never encountered them before. What does this new product do? What is it called? What are its benefits, and how would they position it? Activities like RE:think can strengthen your team’s ability to approach problems in new and unconventional ways.
Agility: Keeping pace with change is a challenge, yet meeting unexpected situations with quick thinking and resourcefulness is the very definition of agility. In a world where change is the only constant, a plan B — and C, D and E — is critical.
Cultivate a preparedness mindset among teams by leading them 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,” “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 upon them.
Resilience: Building on agility, standout employees will also need to demonstrate resilience, which translates to tenacity and courage in the face of obstacles. People who push on undeterred will give their organizations a competitive edge in good times and bad. Teach your teams to overcome barriers 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 with another group and find a way to turn their list of impossible things into possibilities. This exercise awakens the competitive spirit and gives rise to a solution-driven mindset.
Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink, an innovation research and training firm, and author of Kill the Company: End the Status Quo, Start an Innovation Revolution. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.