10 Work Skills for A Working Future

I was recently asked by Microsoft Italy to present to a group of executives in Milan. I was honored to be able to do so, although because of complications (of my own making) I gave the presentation remotely through Skype for Business (which worked flawlessly).

This post is a fairly accurate transcript of my talk, including the slides as images.


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We are living in a new economy -- a new world -- driven by

  • exploding technological innovation,
  • accelerating societal change, and
  • a short list of potentially disastrous trends -- like climate change, economic inequality, and the decline of democracy.

As a result much of what we have come to know about the world is no longer valid.

Today, I won't be trying to solve all the world's problems or answer every question about the future. I will be focusing on the goal of a sustainable, human-centered, but technology-channeled future, and the skills that we will have to learn — both as individuals and as organizations — to thrive in that emerging future.


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A friend tweeted a chart from a report by the World Economic Forum, and he got me thinking. The table for 2020 and 2015 are the sort that CEOs and HR staff would have picked for new hires in 2010, or even 2005.

A skill like 'complex problem solving' is now a given, I thought, table stakes. And note that it was number 1 on their list in 2015, too.

I thought that the world has changed so much in the past decade that we need to consider the WEF's list as basic, like numeracy and literacy.

I decided we need a better list of skills for a new world of work. So I pulled ten skills I had researched and written about in the past few years, all pointing toward a working future.


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Albert Einstein said 'I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious'.

Curiosity is a proxy for the desire to learn, to be open to the pursuit of digging into the unknown.

In a world where the rate of change is accelerating, we need to accelerate our rate of learning, and so we need to become more curious all the time.

I believe that the most creative people are insatiably curious. They want to know what works and why. | Stowe Boyd

Curiosity is in fact the number one thing that Google now searches for in job candidates. Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of People Operations, said 'For every job, though, the №1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.'


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Curiosity varies across the population, but we can learn to be more curious, to adopt the patterns of the most curious among us. To speak to strangers, to ask more questions, and to pursue ideas to find out what works and why.

As just one subskill, curious people have a tendency to create 'anticipatory networks' -- connections to experts, oddballs, and people with diverse backgrounds -- so they can see the world through other's eyes, and draw upon their insights and advice when they are needed.

Research has shown that people are more curious when conditions are right, when they are given more autonomy, when they feel competent, and when they feel connected to others. Organizations should pay attention to those findings.


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Freestyling is a term taken from so-called freestyle chess, where people can use any resources -- chess books, chess programs, calling friends on the phone -- in play.

The most critical of these tools, nowadays, are AI-based chess programs.


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When humans team up with computers to play chess, the humans who do best are not the strongest players. They’re the ones who are modest, and know when to listen to the computer. | Tyler Cohen

The perhaps surprising result of freestyle chess is that the winners are teams of people and chess programs, and the people on the teams are not the world's strongest players. They are the best at applying judgment when their chess programs disagree on what move to make.


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We have to learn to dance with the robots, not to run away. | Stowe Boyd

The takeaway is that much of how we will operate in an AI-rich future will be a balance between AI's augmenting our work, and us augmenting the work of AI's.

As I say, 'We have to learn to dance with the robots, not to run away'.

But that means we will have to make robots that are danceable-with, and don't make us want to run away.


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Traditional leadership is generally understood as a role or position of authority that has a high degree of control over decision making that impacts other people or the organization.

Traditional leadership since the Bronze Age have been associated with charisma -- the ability to attract, charm, and influence the people around you. This has had mixed success, since charismatic sociopaths cause a great deal of trouble.

Traditional leadership has also been associated with bureaucracy, where hierarchic controls exist to define who has say over what, and to make organizations slow to change and tightly scripted.


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Google thinks the second most critical skill is emergent leadership: the ability to steer things in the right direction without the authority to do so, through social competence. | Stowe Boyd

But in today's world of flattened organizations, we are operating more around networks and less on hierarchy as we seek to be more fast-and-loose in the name of agility. Hence, emergent leadership: the ability to steer things in the right direction without the authority to do so, through social competence.

This is another of the key skills Google looks for in new hires, because they found it correlates with future success in Google's networked organization. And probably even more so in the future.


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While we might want greater levels of certainty, we are moving into an era of increased uncertainty, so we'd better learn how to live with it, and to temper our natural desire for certainty, because we live in a time of complex, unsolvable dilemmas with no simple answers.

Constructive uncertainty: learning to slow down decision-making, especially when it affects other people, can help reduce the impact of bias. | Howard Ross


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We’ve learned a great deal in recent years about human cognitive bias. Most important is to realize that we can’t counter our biases simply by becoming aware of them, any more than you can correct your vision by understanding how the lenses in your nearsighted eyes are flawed.

So we have to accept at a fundamental level that we are inherently wired to be biased, and therefore we need to systematically resist the peculiar gravity of bias.

In effect, Ross is suggesting that we slow down so that our preference and social biases don’t take over, because we are deferring decision making, and are instead gathering information.

We may even go so far as to intentionally dissent with the perspectives and observations that we would normally make, but surfacing them in our thinking, not letting them just happen to us.


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The idea of constructive uncertainty is not predicated on eliminating our biases: they are as built into our minds as deeply as language and lust. | Stowe Boyd

The idea of constructive uncertainty is not predicated on eliminating our biases: as I say, they are as built into our minds as deeply as language and lust.

On the contrary, constructive uncertainty is based on the notion that we are confronted with the need to make decisions based on incomplete information, with a biased mind.

More than ever before, learning trumps ‘knowing’, since we are learning from the cognitive scientists that a lot of what we ‘know’ isn’t so: it’s just biased decision-making acting like a short circuit, and blocking real learning from taking place.


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In business, we are too quick to relegate ethics to the philosophers, off in ivory towers, and to leave ethics unexamined when discussing work skills.

This actually means we are afraid to examine our ethics, because they are deeply buried, and strongly linked to our sense of self, identity and belonging. And perhaps we don't want to look at the deep contradictions we embody.

Perhaps movements like #MeToo and #Timesup is ushering in the need to reexamine our business ethics more deeply.


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All thinking touches on our sense of morality and justice. Knowledge is justified belief, so our perspective of the world and our place in it is rooted in our ethical system, whether examined or not. | Stowe Boyd

Complex ethics are needed to jumpstart ourselves and to consciously embrace pragmatic ethical tools. As one example, Von Foerster’s Empirical Imperative states we should ‘act always to increase the number of choices’.

We are seeing a great number of political movements pushing simplistic ethical systems, like 'everyone for themselves'. Those and other ethical systems that ignore the complexities of the world -- like those that deny climate change -- will have to be rejected, and complex ethical systems -- grounded in science -- will have to displace them.

In the final analysis, we need a rebalancing of the power of the marketplace with the rights of people, on many different levels.


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We are living in a time of wild and violent volatility, where the normal ebb and flow of stable/unstable/stable/… isn’t in force. We’re in a period of unstable instability, and all bets are off.

The species that adapt best to radically changing environments are the generalists. But most generalists are shallow, living on the peripheries of more specialized ecosystems. | Jamais Cascio


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So we have to adopt the winning strategies of the two classes of living things: those that are specialists, deeply connected to the context in which they live, and the generalists, able to thrive in many contexts. These are deep generalists.

We can’t be defined just by what we know already, what we have already learned. We need a deep intellectual and emotional resilience if we are to survive in a time of unstable instability. And deep generalists can ferret out the connections that build complexity into complex systems, and grasp their interplay.


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A great deal has been said about design thinking in business. But there has been a shifting away from the grand pronouncements of only a few years ago. Why?

We need a shift in focus from design applications to design implications, and that creates a need for new design roles, contexts and methods. We need to enlarge the context for design in business, if it is to have a lasting impact.

It’s not only about imagining things we desire, but also undesirable things — cautionary tales that highlight what might happen if we carelessly introduce new technologies into society. | Tony Dunne and Fiona Raby


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**Design thinking is not just about designing new products and services for commercial, market-led contexts but also considering broader societal ones. **It’s not only about designing products that can be consumed and used today, but also imaginary ones that might exist in years to come.

The current debate about Facebook's impact on society is an example of design implications.

So design logic jumps the curve from dreaming up things to build and sell, to using the logics of user experience, technological affordance, and the diffusion of innovations in a more general sense, in the sense of envisioning futures based on our present but with new tools, ideas, or cultural totems added, and being able to explore their implications.


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I’m forced to use an inartful adjective -- postnormal -- to wrench the sense of ‘creativity’ out of the context of its usage today. Alfonso Montuori sums this up by saying

'We should … expect that in postnormal times creativity will have a few surprises in store for us.'

Creativity may paradoxically become normal in the sense that it will not be the province of lone tortured geniuses any longer, but an everyone, everyday, everywhere, process. | Alfonso Montuori

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We live in a time where innovation is the foundation of business. We will need to educate ourselves in the pragmatics of how innovations move from dream to ‘dent’, from a lightbulb-in-a-thought-balloon to a world-altering contraption or concept.


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George Santayana famously said,

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

However, while we need to learn from history, we must not be constrained by it, especially in a time where much of what is going on is unprecedented.

The most satisfactory individual identity is that which identifies not only with a community in space but also with a community extending over time from the past into the future. | Kenneth Boulding

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Rather than learning history as lists of events or the sequence of kings, we should instead cultivate the skills that come from reflecting on posterity, the future generations and the world we will leave them. ‘Posterity’ implies continuity of society and the obligations of those living now to future inheritors, a living commitment, while ‘the future’ is a distant land peopled by strangers to whom we have no ties.

If this kind of identity is recognized as desirable, then posterity has a voice, even if it does not have a vote; and in a sense, if its voice can influence votes, it has votes too. | Kenneth Boulding

This is a part of the new ethics we need, but also the skills of futures work: to actively imagine and ‘design’ futures, and to consider them in the light of the people who will inhabit them.


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We'll need to think of ourselves migrating into a future that makes new demands on us in order for us to survive there, which along with these skills will require new ways of working to apply them.

As I once wrote,

We need to colonize the future ourselves, we must make our own maps of that territory, maps that show us as inhabitants and inheritors, making new economics, breaking with the deals and disasters of the past, and committing again to each other: to be a community and not consumers, to be partners and not competitors, to be from the future and beyond the past.


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As the world spins ever faster, it has become more difficult to make decisions at all, and especially good ones.

Sensemaking: The ability to determine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed. | The Institute for the Future


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Sensemaking is a social activity where plausible stories are created, retained, shared, and preserved. It is an ongoing, context-centric activity, a feedback loop, as people project themselves and their circumstances in the environment and observe the consequences of action.

These narrative-based skills are critical in times of crisis, disruption, and change, which is the permanent situation now.

We need to nurture the capacity to create and share flexible models through narrative to derive meaning from a constantly changing set of information, events, and others' thoughts, and continuously reconsider the best course of action.

I've put sensemaking at No. 10 because it draws on all the preceding skills, not because it was the last I could come up with.


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All of these skills can be learned, even those -- like curiosity and creativity -- that seem to be personality characteristics.

We don’t have to become mutants to thrive in the future. But we do need new skills: without them we may fail to find a workable future.

These 10 — and other skills — form a necessary foundation for that future, but not a sufficient one. We will need more to happen, particularly a broad education, policy, and regulatory shift, to ensure that working future comes to pass.

I don’t think these skills are being taught, generally, or at least not in any sort of systematic way. At some point, the inevitability of these skills may change that. There’s a small cadre of agitators (I include myself) shouting out that the times are a-changin’, but I don’t know how far our voices carry, or if others can understand our words.

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For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. ** TS Eliot, Little Gidding**

Perhaps this is proof, once again that we need new ways to think about — and talk about — this rapidly changing world: we will have to find another voice.

Maybe that’s the eleventh skill.

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