by Tony Golsby-Smith
How many people in your organization are innovative thinkers who can help with your thorniest strategy problems? How many have a keen understanding of customer needs? How many understand what it takes to assure that employees are engaged at work?
If the answer is “not many,” welcome to the club. Business leaders around the world have told me that they despair of finding people who can help them solve wicked problems — or even get their heads around them. It’s not that firms don’t have smart people working with them. There are plenty of MBAs and even Ph.Ds in economics, chemistry, or computer science, in the corporate ranks. Intellectual wattage is not lacking. It’s the right intellectual wattage that’s hard to find. They simply don’t have enough people with the right backgrounds.
This is because our educational systems focus on teaching science and business students to control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data. It doesn’t teach how to navigate “what if” questions or unknown futures. As Amos Shapira , the CEO of Cellcom, the leading cell phone provider in Israel, put it: “The knowledge I use as CEO can be acquired in two weeks…The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and analyze things (including) history and philosophy.”
People trained in the humanities who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cezanne’s paintings, say, have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways. Here are just a few things that the liberal arts crowd can help you with:
Complexity and ambiguity. Too many companies lack the scope of understanding to stop problems before they start, because their people are too focused on immediate tasks, or buried under so much data that they can’t see warning signs. The BP oil disaster, the manufacturing problems at Johnson&Johnson and Genzyme and many others might have been avoided if they had learned to identify ambiguous threats .
Any great work of art — whether literary, philosophical, psychological or visual — challenges a humanist to be curious, to ask open-ended questions, see the big picture. This kind of thinking is just what you need if you are facing a murky future or dealing with tricky, incipient problems.
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