The Skills Obsession: Designing the Skills Future
by Stacia Garr | March 9th, 2021
Lisa Kay Solomon, Futures and Design at Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford d.school
“What I introduce to are the kinds of skills that allow them to navigate ambiguity.” If that seems like urgently-needed capability you or your team to have you’re in luck, as you’re about to find out a whole lot more about why you’d need such a thing… and why you won’t find it, alas, in today’s conventional curriculum (including corporate L&D).
In the first full episode of our new RedThread podcast—our deep dive into what we’re calling capitalism’s focus on ‘The Skills Obsession’—we meet passionate educator, innovator and bestselling author Lisa Kay Solomon. Designer in Residence at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (‘the d.school’) at Stanford University, Lisa presents in her dialog with Stacia, Dani and Chris something of a masterclass in what thinking about the future actually needs to consist of—and how that feeds into her conviction that, “learning is the currency of possibility.”
Workday will host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season, where you can meet the Workplace Stories team of Dani, Stacia and Chris, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. Find out more information and access content at www.workday.com/skills.
We are very grateful to Workday for its exclusive sponsorship of this season of the Workplace Stories by RedThread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday; it’s one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial, HR and planning system for a changing world.
The five key podcast soundbites:
What I introduce to are the kinds of skills that allow them to navigate ambiguity, and to use their imagination in order to expand their perspective around what might be—and then to bring those futures to life.
I think about skills as learnable abilities, but what does that mean? It means you can develop an ability, do something, by practicing it over time. Much of my work is really about creating conditions to allow for deliberate practice of these new skills; how do we learn how to ask questions through a discovery lens? How do we learn how to become more resilient? How do we learn how to navigate ambiguity? I believe these are teachable and learnable skills—and that makes me so happy.
One of the things that's interesting to me as I get more serious and more focused on teaching futures literacy and futures thinking and strategic foresight as a strategic skillset, is that it's not really taught anywhere. And it's certainly not taught in a foundational K-12 context. The closest thing you can get is History and Humanities.
To me, learning is the currency of possibility; I not only makes me more creative as an educator, as an author, as an idea person, about trying to make sense of where we're going, but I think it gives me the opportunity to be more resilient—when you learn, you're more resilient.
There is so much emphasis on getting to answers quickly: on performing. What do we need for the future? We need people comfortable with being curious. We need people comfortable being courageous and being able to say, I don't know this, but I know it's a problem, so how else can I learn more about it?
Welcome to Workplace Stories hosted by RedThread Research, where we look for the Red Thread connecting humans, ideas, stories, and data—defining the near future of people and work practices.
My name is Stacia Garr, and I'm the co-founder and principal analyst at Red Thread Research, along with Dani Johnson, who is also co-founder and principal analyst at Red Thread and Chris Pirie of the Learning Futures Group. We're excited to welcome you to our first podcast season: this episode is part of Season One, called The Skills Obsession in which we investigate the current preoccupation with all things skills. We talk to thinkers, writers, leaders, and practitioners about the current state of thinking on why and how we are managing skills at the people and organizational level.
We are very grateful to Workday for their exclusive sponsorship of this first season of the Red Thread Research podcast. Today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday. It's one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial HR and planning system for a changing world.
Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season where you can meet the team Dani, Stacia and myself, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. You can find out more information and access exclusive content at www.workday.com/skills.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
I help students learn skills they don't yet know that they need.
That was Lisa Kay Solomon of the Stanford University d.school. Lisa is a best-selling author, educator, speaker, and dynamic force for good in the world; she’s dedicated her career to making design more accessible and learnable. Lisa is currently a designer in residence at the Stanford d.school, where she focuses on bridging the disciplines of Futures and Design Thinking, creating experiences like The Future's Happening to help students learn and practice the skills they don't even know. They need.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
I think about skills as learnable abilities, and so much of my work is really about creating conditions to allow for deliberate practice of these new skills. So how do we learn how to ask questions through a discovery lens? How do we learn how to become more resilient? How do we learn how to navigate ambiguity? I believe these are teachable and learnable skills—and that makes me so happy.
Lisa is a long time friend. We've had the opportunity to sit in a couple of her sessions at the d.school, and we were really intrigued with how they made us think differently and how she's talking about the skills that people will need in the future.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
We can see the past, but we can't influence it. We can't see the future, but we can influence it. And so to me, that's a call for getting more serious about the scales and the discipline of learning how to imagine a multiplicity of futures, or at the very least challenge our status quo.
Let's listen into our conversation with Lisa Kay Solomon.
Welcome, Lisa, thanks so much for joining us on this podcast: we’re going to be talking all about skills in this season, and we are just delighted to have you helping us think through skills and the future of work. And what does that all mean as we bring it together? So can we maybe start with a little bit about you and your work? I know you mentioned that you are helping people design and think about the future: can you tell us a little bit more? What does that mean: what is your work?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Well, Stacia, thank you so much for having me. I'm thrilled to be talking about skills, and as they relate to the future of work—I think about this all day, every day.
And the challenge in part with my work is that at the d.school, where I teach classes about the future and design, I help students learn skills that they don't yet know that they need, because what I introduce them to are the kinds of skills that allow them to navigate ambiguity, and to use their imagination in order to expand their perspective around what might be—and then to bring those futures to life.
And if you think about where most of these students have done their foundational learning… you won't see any of those skills in there! So it's very much applying some of the foundational skills around learning how to read and literacies across all different disciplines, in new ways. So my work is really to not only bring these students on board, to help them see that they are capable of learning these new skills, but to give them the space, to master them over time.
Amazing. Well, let's step back because you used the word skills. I use the word skills as we started this, but what does that even mean? It's a really broad concept, and so what does that word mean to you?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Again, I want to say thank you for doing a whole series on skills, because skills are, it's one of those words that we throw around, and we may be talking about different things, I don't think there's any necessarily one definition; the way I think about it, I think about skills as learnable abilities—again, more, more meta words—but what, what does that mean?
That means that you can develop the ability, do something by practicing it over time. And so much of my work is really about creating conditions to allow for deliberate practice of these new skills. So how do we learn how to ask questions through a discovery lens? How do we learn how to become more resilient? How do we learn how to navigate ambiguity? I believe these are teachable and learnable skills—and that makes me so happy.
One thing we've been wrestling with is since we've been doing the research is this concept of skills versus competencies. And are those things that you just mentioned, are they, are they competencies or are they skills? Are we kind of just calling what we used to call competencies skills now? Or does it even matter?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Yeah, that's a great question. I don't tend to get hung up too much on the semantics, as long as they don't confuse us. So that's why I like to break it down to the smallest bit.
So for about nine years, I taught at a really revolutionary program in San Francisco. That was an MBA in design strategy, housed at the California College of Arts. So imagine, right—this is probably like mind-blowing to some of your listeners right now—like what is an MBA program doing in a 110-year old Arts and Crafts school in San Francisco? Crazy, right?
And what I used to say about that program—and we could talk a lot about it, because it was my first introduction to actually transitioning my career from being an advisor to an educator where I had to think very seriously around what am I organizing this learning experience against—what are the skills that I hope that our students come out of this program with?
And it allowed me to articulate that, for starters, I wanted employers and organizations to know that when they hired a DMBA-er, as we used to say, they were getting a certain kind of talent that they wouldn't necessarily find in a more traditional program, because we utilized some of the critique-based, project-based learning typically done in arts or architecture applied towards analytics and systems thinking and business processes that the employers were getting, or the people hiring them were getting someone that was more adaptable, more flexible, more resilient, more comfortable with iteration and rapid learning.
Is that a skill? Is that a competency? Does it matter? I don't know. It only matters because we've developed systems that are trying to measure these things. And so it was really interesting to try to help the students understand that what they were learning may not be yet on the hiring docket of what these organizations were looking for on paper, but they were developing the skills that these organizations needed for the future.
Interesting. Yeah, that reminds me, Dani and I have very different backgrounds. She is an Engineer and I am actually a Historian by education. And one of the things I've talked about as being the most valuable that I learned from that education is pattern recognition. And what we do as researchers in HR is pattern recognition, seeing things, and ideally seeing them before other people do so that we can help elevate the understanding of what's happening out there.
But I think it speaks exactly to what you're saying: as a historian, no one was saying I was going to apply that skillset to doing this type of work, but it gives you that foundation to really do amazing things in really any context.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
I love that you share that partnership. I feel like you just model the debate. My husband and I argue every night about what our children should be learning. He's in the venture capital business, he loves STEM, he loves coding, and I do too, and I do think technology is and will continue to be a huge part of our future. And we talk at the d.school about the importance of coding literacy and even understanding that tech really is the design material of the future. And Stacia, to your point, like where do you learn how to imagine the future by understanding the past by understanding patterns? I love the Mark Twain quote that I heard was recently debunked, but until I hear the original person said this quote, I'm going to keep saying it, which is that history doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes.
You know, one of the things that's interesting to me as I get more serious and more focused on teaching futures literacy and futures thinking and strategic foresight as a strategic skillset, is that it's not really taught anywhere. And it's certainly not taught in a foundational K-12 context. The closest thing you can get is History and Humanities, which is ironic, right? That the closest thing to helping you understand the future is actually to study the past.
And I'll bring in another one of my favorite quotes from Stewart Brand, who was the creator of the Whole Earth Catalog and he actually created was one of the founders of Global Business Network as scenario planning from where I first did my futures work almost 20 years ago. And he says, we can see the past, but we can't influence it; we can't see the future, but we can influence it.
And so to me, that's a call for getting more serious about the skills and the discipline of learning, how to imagine a multiplicity of futures or the very least challenge our status quo of this official future that we're all walking around with.
Right, right, and I love that idea of multiplicity of futures—so this concept that we may think that there is one future, but there clearly isn't and, and having a sense of thinking through what could those different futures look like and what are, back to our topic, what are the skills that we might need to make those futures come to life in a way that is satisfying for each of us.
You’ve talked a lot about your transition, you mentioned going from an advisor to an educator, and obviously the skillset that you have as a Futurist is not one that you necessarily learned in a specific place. So can you talk a little bit about the skills you need to do your work today, and how you even acquired them?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
How much time do we have? I don’t know—I’m still figuring it out! I mean, one of the things I love about my work is I learn something every day. To me, learning is the currency of possibility; I not only makes me more creative as an educator, as an author, as an idea person, about trying to make sense of where we're going, but I think it gives me the opportunity to be more resilient—when you learn, you're more resilient. And that's what I love about design, and why I'm so passionate about teaching the skills of design: who doesn't want to feel like they have agency over their future, even when the world around us is getting more complex and filled with more ambiguity and uncertainty?
So I take these skills very seriously as an educator, as a designer of new possibilities, as a parent, as a member of my community: I'm always asking ‘what if,’ right? That's probably the biggest, quite the biggest skill that I bring to the table is this sense of maybe applied optimism or applied possibility, which is this combination of like observing the world around me first, having the humility to not go in there with a solution looking for a problem, but to really pause and pay attention, what's really going on here, and to try to understand it at different levels, like what's the presenting source of pain or challenge—what’s maybe driving that, so now you're sort of look at it through a systems lens to try to understand, like what might be the root causes, then the ability to say, well, all right, what parts can I influence, and what parts are out of my control? And then the ability to say, well, ‘what if’—what if we tried this and the ability to put that out there, not knowing if it's a right idea or not.So over time, being confident that or comfortable maybe offering up a possibility without full information or guarantee that it's going to be the right one.
And I want to juxtapose that with where so much of our foundational schooling is, and certainly a lot of what I see in the Stanford students, which is there is so much systemic reward for being right. There is so much emphasis on getting to answers quickly: on performing. What do we need for the future? We need people comfortable with being curious. We need people comfortable being courageous and being able to say, I don't know this, but I know it's a problem, so how else can I learn more about it? Who else can I bring here?
And I think that's the other big skill that I have Stacia which is, I am very excited to build and learn from others, build relationships and learn from others, and I fully credit my mom for that, and that is because she was a chief learning officer for 25 years. And before that got her training in psychology counselling—so she's a PhD who loved to unpack the dynamic of the human experience.
She actually wrote a class at Penn when I was too young to even appreciate what a rock star she was, called the psychology of personal growth. How cool is that—that this woman was so ahead of her time. I mean, now, she'd be like a Brené Brown or an Oprah!
And her intuition was like, she saw these Penn students—we grew up in Philadelphia, and she worked and taught at Penn—and she saw these students like so raring to achieve, and she wanted to give them an opportunity to pause, to learn about themselves. And so that was my context growing up—seeing someone who was herself, always learning and asking questions. And she used to say when she went in as a chief learning officer, that her job was to be the learning partner of the leaders that she worked with. I just thought, That's so cool.
I'm going to chime in here with a question, if I can, based on what I've heard so far? One of the things I'm hearing from you is quite a lot of references to what I would call ‘mindsets’ or ‘approaches’? It might be useful to talk a little bit about design, about your sort of stock in trade, around design. What do you think are the skills and the mindsets that are important for design, and what's happening in the design world? Because I'm sure it's not standing still; I'm sure there are changes and forces at work on the world of design. So talk about design through the lens of, of skills, if you could?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Well, design is another big topic that we could cover. And I think part of what I try to do in my contribution to the field is to break it down so that everyone could see themselves in the definition of design. So there's lots of different ways to describe design—design as an output, design as a process, design is a set of practices, which is where I tend to fall. Because again, those practices are teachable and learnable.
And I'll give you two definitions that I love just to make sure that everyone, because this is a learning podcast around skills, they may be like, I'm not a designer. Well, newsflash—I think if you're in the learning business, you're in the design business. And here's why: my favorite definition of design comes from my dear friend and colleague Nathan Shedroff, who started that MBA design program that I mentioned earlier, and he's been in design for 30 years.
And what he says is as a designer, it is my responsibility to make choices that trigger the right responses. To make choices that trigger the right responses. Okay, so that's interesting, so that seems to suggest that first of all, you are in the service business, right? Because your job is to make a choice that sets somebody else up for success.
And if this is still abstract, just think about like, I often say to people, what's, what's something well-designed in your mind that, that you love. And I get to answers more than any first time. First people say, I love my iPhone. Okay, well, a number of people made choices to help you love your iPhone. Right? What does your iPhone do for you? Well, it's a mini-computer in your hand and it's seamless and it's beautiful, okay: so they made choices to trigger those responses. And so it suggests that you need to know enough about the people you are designing for them—what success looks like for them or the kind of goals you're trying to trigger for them?
So in the spirit of a learning context, your job as a learning professional is to create choices, to help the person you're designing for, you’re making choices for, be successful. So you need to understand what success means for them? What does it mean in the context of the role? What does it mean in the context of the organization? What does it mean in the context of the industry? So you have to have a lot of different information before you make any decisions about what it is that you were going to bring for them forward to them.
So that's design, and then I'll try to even get it down a bit more concrete. When I think about, and this comes from the work of Don Norman originally, he was a cognitive scientist/psychologist who wrote the book The Design of Everyday Things, which is a foundational book in the world of design. And he basically said design's role is to do two things: one is to deliver functional utility. So, again, in the context of learning, am I helping you learn something you didn't know that helps you do your job as a functional utility. And I would say, and this is what makes great design, the emotional engagement piece, right? So you're not just learning it because it's like hideous and you're trying to memorize it; you are becoming more of yourself when you're learning it. There's an element of joy. There's an element of vibrancy. There's an element of humanity, because humans have that emotion. And we now know from research, that emotion is actually triggered to learning and that's equally important in the decisions you're making, right? Which is why, for example, and I'm just going to take this meander down to this most basic level in the spirit of design, like you could design a very dry worksheet to try to get someone to learn something new—or you could create an immersive experience, where they're using their full body. Which one is going to have the lasting impact that you want in terms of them advancing their abilities in some way? We know it's the ladder. Well, that takes a totally different skillset to do so.
I love this. One thing I don't think we told you before we roped you into talking to us today is the other group that is going to be listening to this podcast is people analytics leaders, because people analytics is very much so a part of understanding skills, quantifying skills and helping us think through what ones we need in the organization in the future.
And some of the research we've been doing around people analytics technology really gets at this point around making your words, making choices, that enable success. And we've been talking a lot about how, before you, as a people analytics leader, design a study, or you design a dashboard, you need to understand the people who will be using that dashboard will be using that data. What decisions are they trying to make? And what does the success mean as a result of those decisions? But I think the point that you just made kind of made a light bulb go off in my head around the emotional component. So when Dani and I write a study, we use a story brand perspective, which is understanding what the high level problem is, what the specific problem is, and then what the emotional personal problem is. And so for anybody who, in this example, is using a people analytics dashboard, or is looking at the skills problem from a quantifiable perspective, they're going to have an emotional angle to this too. And as we think about how we present data or how we present decisions, we need to be thinking about that emotional connection, so are we going to be able to help that person solve the problem that may be stymieing their career right now? Or the one that they say we've just got to be able to get our heads around what new things we need to do, because that is an emotional problem, too, and we can bring data to bear on that, but understanding that that's a problem that we need to solve. In addition to the presenting problem, I think you called it simply, what skills do we need an organization?
So I love this idea of applying the utility and the emotional component to some of these kinds of more data-driven questions that we see with skills as well.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
I mean, it's such an interesting point, Stacia, and I think it is Blue Sky territory around. Re-Imagining what these metrics are for some of these more qualitative and hard to measure skills. Like I said, we're at the dawn of a new era and in many ways, the last 10 months of navigating three crises at the same time between the pandemic and the economic crisis that we're facing and the real reckoning on institutional racism and demand for changes in how organizations support diversity—the old metrics don't fly, none of them! (Well, not none of them, but very few of them.)
So we have to be comfortable in really saying, let's design backwards. At the end of the day, not only do we want to be able to show results for our organization that shows whatever it is, profitability, growth, resilience, strength, we also want to be able to say, what does it mean for someone to feel like they are thriving at this organization—to feel like they are contributing their best talents and passion and power, even, to this opportunity? Because of course we know that’s what's going to enable them to stay and recruit others and put their best foot forward.
I'm not up to date on the latest numbers around engagement, around trust, around support, but I don't think they're good. So something tells me, and so we're doing a lot of work measuring the wrong stuff. Now, I don't mean to say that so glibly, because then of course the answer was, well, what’s the right stuff we should measure. And I don't think we know yet how to measure some of this stuff. How do we measure imagination? How do we even measure curiosity? How many times somebody put a question in a team search form, how do we measure the strength of your relationships, the diversity of your race? We're beginning to, but I don't think we should fall in love with these early metrics; we’re not there yet.
I remember a couple years ago I had a conversation with the head of school, my daughters go to a really fabulous school, all girls school and the head of school pick these character themes every year to do deep dives into. And one year as resilience, understanding I live in Silicon Valley and the pressure to perform at Silicon Valley is out of proportion with, I think the developmental needs of young people, not unique to this school and sort of endemic to certainly this area and many others. And so I thought it was a very noble and brave thing to be able to say, look, we're going to focus this year on resilience. And I remember being at a parent coffee and it just raised my hand. I was like, if this goes, well, how do we know? How do we know that our girls are more resilient? (This happens to be an all girls school.) How do we know? And I have to believe that in this answer, and this is very draconian, it has to be something better than they don't mention being depressed. That's not the metric!
And so I think that's the creative challenge ahead of us is to really say like, what is it, what is it we're shooting for now? The exciting part is that I think different fields are getting at this, but we need to come together some ways—we have some studies on happiness, some studies on thriving, some studies on becoming on growth mindset. And we need a sort of mind-meld of some of these to really understand what that looks like in the context of a work in the context of community contribution.
So I'm hopeful, I'm excited—but I think we have a long way to go.
Some really interesting ideas that I just took away from the conversation so far is one is you, you mentioned that skills are teachable, eEven these mindset type skills of resilience and fortitude and curiosity, they're teachable as well. So that's kind of an interesting parameter.
The other connection that I'm making is with the work we've been doing around purpose, which turns out to be a lot about human motivation and the psychology of engagement. And I think we're in that territory again here, in terms of thinking through what a skill is; if I can write code it's useless unless I'm motivated to do that to solve a problem. And, and so there's something very, very interesting about that.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Yeah. I just want to pick up on a couple of things there, Chris, thank you for calling that out. It is. I keep coming back to my purpose, which is to help make these intangible skills, teachable and learnable.
I believe that, every day, and I feel so privileged to do this work and I love the idea that our all leaders leaders of all ages—and I'm doing increasingly more work with K-12, because my experience working with executives frankly, is that we have to spend a whole lot of time unlearning to then relearn—and so my systems thinking brain was like, why don't we just get it earlier in the pipeline to teach them that?
So it's like, why don't we try that? So I'm doing a lot of work, actually, with schools in K-12 around creating futures, programming and literacy, and what does that mean? And we're just in the early stages of articulating that, but one of the foundational ones that is true for both design and futures is this notion of navigating ambiguity. I totally agree with you, Chris, that it's a mindset, but it is also a skillset. Let me give you a couple examples of that. One of the ways that we tolerate ambiguity is just to identify that there are a number of ways that something might unfold—that there's not a single right answer. And so we actually spend time identifying a spectrum of possibilities, right? And so we even did this when I did some early scenario planning around COVID, back in March, where we said okay, well, what's one critical uncertainty that we don't know about how it's going to unfold. Well, is the pandemic going to be short and relatively quick, or is it going to be long, longer and more durable in some ways… How do you know, let's unpack that?
Well, what would lead it to be short and quick? Oh, well, we have therapeutics that work, we have abundant testing, we have PPE, we have supportive healthcare. We have vaccines. Okay… what would lead to it being longer? Oh, well we do have shortages. So now, all of a sudden, we're doing another design principle, which is going from the abstract to concrete in order to help break down the ambiguity of ‘how long would this pandemic last’ into more understandable terms.
Now, again, we're not predicting, but we're managing our ambiguity by naming ends and by breaking it down and allowing us to get into a more active research mode than we would have with that big question of, I don't know when the pandemic is going to end.
So that's one strategy, and therefore like coupling it with a couple of practices on how to navigate that question. That’s just one of them. So next week, I'm starting winter quarter teaching my favorite class, called Inventing the Future with Tina Seelig, who is a brilliant creativity entrepreneur guru at Stanford, a real thought leader and author, and Drew Endy, who runs Bioengineering—such a fun class. The whole purpose of the class is to get students more comfortable unpacking the ambiguity around us. And the original inspiration for the class when we started developing it three years ago was to help primarily engineering and CS students not jump to the question of, can we build it, but to really pause and say, should we build it? How do we know? Well, what if we could give you skills and practices that at least help you better understand the potential implications of it? So that's just one sort of specific example. And over the course of the 10 weeks in the quarter, we introduced various creativity and futures practices in order to develop, help them develop the skills to think about what it means to invent the future.
Very cool. My husband was one of those Stanford students who actually took Tina Seelig’s class, and I can't say how much just her approach and her thinking at the d.school just changed his approach. He was a master's student, and it just I think fundamentally shifts once you've gone through that experience of design and over the course of 10 weeks, incredibly shifts the way you look at the world. So I just want to put an exclamation point on the work that you're doing and folks at the d.school are doing, because I think it makes a huge difference; I've seen it!
Lisa Kay Solonon:
That's great to hear it; it’s transformational. What's so fun is when you see the light switch flip; you just don't know exactly when it's going to happen, but it is that embodied cognition about like, wait, what—I don't have to accept these assumptions at face value. I have the ability to identify all the assumptions, ask myself what would be the opposite, then go into a research mode to see if the opposite might be true?
I mean, it's transformational, it’s epic, but Tina's brilliant and the class is designed to make it accessible to say the ability to imagine something new—the ability to ‘be innovative’ or a creative problem solver. That's not for a select few, that's for all of us, If we allocate intentional practice to these skills, we cannot get better at things we don't practice; I don't know about you, but I was not born learning how to make a beautiful PowerPoint. I just wasn’t, right; I had to practice.
And so then you have to put yourself in a position where to say, how could I practice with people that are masters at their craft—how can I learn from them, how can I apprentice from them, how can I use technology to facilitate that? So, yes, it starts with a mindset, as Chris said earlier, which is foundationally a growth mindset that I can learn something, I want to learn something, I'm capable of learning something. And then it's the grit, it's the perseverance, it's over time, and being willing to take feedback and say, how could I do better?
But there's something else going on at the d.school in the context of Stanford that I think is interesting too. Because if I'm at Stanford, studying Neuroscience or Biology, there is an accepted curricular and path of study to do that, right; there is a set of skills that I need to acquire, whether it’s how to properly use a pipette or understand the knowledge base around chemical interactions, whatever.
What you do in that context, though, what the d.school does in that context is sort of collide people together from different disciplines. And so I think you're saying that there's something going on other than following this sort of established set of skills and knowledge acquisition. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Absolutely—and I agree with you, Chris, we are a very, very lucky place. I mean, the d.school, first of all, is a little bit of misnomer in that it's not really a school from a standpoint of having a curriculum; it’s a institute of experimentation and creativity, really, which allows us and encourages us to take Stanford students from all disciplines, whether they're master's students or undergrad, CS, Humanities, PhDs, to come and learn together in an experiential class that exposes them to these practices of creative problem solving against a real-world problem, ideally.
And so you're exactly right, Chris—we want students that come in with their body of knowledge, their depth that they are learning, and to then go adjacent to go abroad—I mean, sometimes we talk about T-shaped people where they’re kind of applying their different skills.
Again Stacia, this has really helped my dinner conversations with my husband; the book Range that came out which talks about the importance of being able to pull from different disciplines. This of course, makes me think of Steven Johnson's work on where good ideas come from, where he talks about the adjacent possible. And so there's something about the d.school that creates an environment of psychological safety. I mean, we know that if you sign up for a class at the d.school, part of our job as educators is to make it safe, to take risks. And in fact, on day one of our class on Inventing the Future, we say to the students, if you come to this class, you get a guaranteed A, this is not your class. We can't tell you what an A looks like; we can tell you that you have to show up every day,ready to learn, ready to take risks, ready to go into new places.
So again, Chris, your point, that's not in the textbook; that’s not like, okay, now I'm at the 201 level. And Chris, you and I have talked about this before; this is why I love, for example, the practices of improvisational theater, because it forces you to get comfortable taking the next step without all the information. And a lot of times at the d.school, some of the opening activities we'll do are steeped in improvisational theater practices; we call them Stokes or warmups, but they're really to kind of get you present, get you loose. It's been very interesting to learn how to translate them in a remote setting, but we're doing it, and we are pushing our craft on that.
But Chris, going back to your point about the sort of pedagogical difference to say, you are not here to acquire knowledge that has a checklist; you are here to identify areas of practice that you want to explore for yourself. And the d.school, even in the last few years, has really has really migrated its focus from teaching the design thinking process, which was really popularized by David Kelly at the d.school, which is a user set human-centered approach to solving problems, first, you got to understand and empathize and you have to define what the problem and new idea. I think that that process was useful as an on-ramp, but I was always as a human capacity person, and I was always interested in what did it unleash? What were the practices that it unleashed—what did that process afford you, the experience of getting exposure to.
And over the last five years or so, we've been migrating from teaching the process or a process to really teaching abilities. And we have identified these eight design abilities that include navigating ambiguity, communicating deliberately building and crafting intentionally experimenting rapidly, moving between abstract and concrete. And I encourage anyone to go to the d.school to really read through them because I don't want to overwhelm you with, with all of them, but to me, this is the sort of the layer that you can add on to any of those discreet disciplines that will really expand your ability to solve important problems.
Great. It's great because you've introduced another synonym that we can use for skills—this notion of ‘abilities.’
Dani, I know you have some, some questions, sorry.
I have so many questions! As an engineer, I’ve always looked for the right answer, because that's how I was brought up. But I'm curious, Lisa, about your take on when we started needing to go back to our human self and look at design? It seems like the majority of progress that has been made since the beginning of humankind has been made because we were doing what you're now having to teach students to do? So when did that switch? When did we start needing to introduce this back into our human selves?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Gosh, it's so interesting, Dani, I agree with you… I feel like this is a terrible metaphor, but I sometimes think about the movie Soylent Green, ’It's about people—go back to the people!’ It was terrible, because they were eating people, but it is why I think I'm so passionate about design, because I think design is fundamentally human it’s a human scale, requires real nuance; it requires all the skills that I know you've spent a lot of time researching around what makes learning human, and I don't have a great definitive answer to you. But my hunch tells me is that it started probably a hundred years ago when we moved to a more industrial model of education, of kind of moving towards valuing efficiency, over exploration—the move towards multiple choice tests and personality tests and intelligence tests, and those kinds of things, and then we created a whole systems around it that are really, really hard to dismantle.
I mentioned earlier, I'm a parent of teenagers. I mean, I cheered for joy when all the standardized tests for college entry were canceled, initially, because I felt like, wow, this frees up 100 hours of studying for a stupid test. Forgive me if any of your listeners are working at the College Board, but it's like, we know, we know that these are not indicators of future success, and yet we rely so much on these numbers, right, that were gamified because we've created a whole industry around it. I actually posted either like a blog post or something about it early in April, and I was like, what can these young people do with these hours back? Imagine, maybe they give back to their community, maybe they take some creative risks; maybe they become social entrepreneurs or find civic agency and engagement?
And sure enough, the industry found a way to keep crawling back and make it even more terrible for these young people to go through. And I just think that is soul-crushing, and not a long-term resilient activity for them to be doing. So Dani, I agree with you. I mean, there was just, again, why it's so exciting to see some of these movements in K-12 project-based learning Reggio Emilia, even… I remember like this like 10 years ago and Google was really, maybe 15 years ago, and there was this like 60 minutes special with Sergei and Larry and they're like, what's your secret, and they're like, well, we were both in Montessori school, and everyone was, yay, Montessori!
I think that in part the education system values something different. And then, in the last 15 years, and I'm a little biased being in Silicon Valley, but we started to have a very techno-centric view—that technology was going to create abundance. And we're just at the beginning of really unpacking, like, what are the dangers of that perspective? How do we really challenge it? Who's making the technology, what are the biases that go into it?
Chris, you had asked a question that I'm realizing I never came back to around what’s the future of design? I think the future of design is design justice—designing for equity and really using those same design skills that we use to create great products to actually say, how do we use that to dismantle some of these systems and to rethink?
At the d.school, we're doing a huge push around using design abilities to make emerging tech more accessible through analog modalities like AI cards so we can teach fundamental algorithms to six year olds so that they don't just have technology happened to them, but they have the wherewithal to say, Hey, is this a classification algorithm? Is this a clustering algorithm? How would I know, where do they get the data? How can I challenge that? And to really think of those as literacies that we need to take seriously.
Ethics as well. Ethics for engineers.
I think it's interesting that you're going back to K through 12; I think it's obviously the right move. I mean, we've been talking to CLOs and CHROs for years and years; I think they face different pressures as well, like we talked about the system being in place for a hundred years and the metrics that they're measured against and the system built around meeting those metrics, and having to teach skills in a certain way so that things are most efficient; it seems like such a big problem.
Are you optimistic that we'll ever unpack some of these systems, and make it a better place?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
I think it's going to be a battle; I have to remain optimistic, or else I've got to resign tomorrow. I mean, I am advocating more and more of my time to doing this and we have to work with you really future-forward educators and administrators willing to do it because, again, it's a little bit of a chicken and egg question going back to station's point earlier about like, how are we measuring these things? We don't yet have the measurements, so you need some role to be able to say, no, what? We know that we are building, courageous, resilient young leaders. We know that we are, and so it is going to be important that we allocate time towards that, and that may not be measurable yet. So it takes some courageous schools and some creative educators to say, look, this candidate or the profile of our students are not going to look like the students that you're used to getting: we think they're better.
And so like, we're going to need some big player in the system—to be able to take a public stand on that. And I do think that we have a slight opening here; never let a good crisis go to waste. So I think that UC systems, for example, stopped taking SATs altogether this year. So the question will be like, is this a blip? Or are they like, we can't wait once the vaccines let's get those testing machines up and running again, or are they going to use this time to say, how else can we better understand which students do well and why, what are their qualitative characteristics? And then to create a system around it where they're connecting, like what happens next with these students, right, because of these qualities and then downward to say, Hey, look, High Schools: this is the stuff we're looking for.
For years, we've just been in this default mode of, well, let's just take what's available, SAT scores, GPA, but because this is such a strange year, as so many of the status quo systems were disrupted. We have an opportunity to reimagine, but we have to put a stake in the ground. One of the things that we're doing around our K-12 futures initiative is, we're trying to, ahead of time, articulate as if they were the World Economic Forum Skills of the Future—like we’re trying to make some of those connections from the beginning to say, look, this isn't happening as a one-off, this isn't a like little niche program like Reggio Emilia and preschools and child-centric—no, this is actually serving you, big corporation! So I think there's an opportunity to connect some dots.
I think one thing that sort of came to mind as you were talking about that is our view of what data is. We think of it in terms of numbers; in the last couple of years, and especially within the last 10 months, we've seen reputation becomes so much more important. And I use the term reputation in how do you quantify a person without quantifying the person? So things like portfolios have become much more important word of mouth, and rating how well you like to work with somebody has become much more important.
The rating systems I think have started to change. Usually when we talk to organizations, it's all about those quantifiable skills, doing things in a certain way, the most efficient way, but we're starting to see some of those things creep in. And so it gives me hope that we can figure that out as well. I think tech will play a part in helping to digest some of that and help us make better decisions.
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Well, that’s why the work you're doing is so important, right? Because you're putting the research behind it. And I love the work, for example, you've been doing or exploring the role of tech to really promote diversity within organizations. It's not the lip service, not just like changing the diversity statement, but really challenging in productive ways.
I believe that people are not changing because they don't want to, they just don't know how—I really approach this from a much more empathetic standpoint and to say like, well, we're going to have to learn together, and we may not do it right away. I mean, that's the other thing we have to suspend our desire to solve it and fix it, right? These are problems. And so like a big part of my work is finding those bright spots and really unpacking them to say like, how is this not an anomaly, how can we learn from this? Like what, what else is there?
But it’s also humbling work. And Dani, just to give you like another example over the summer, we did a lot of scenario planning with schools, K-12 schools, getting back in the Fall. And at the time, if you remember, way back in the summer, we were kind of optimistic that we could go back in Fall; I mean, yes, there was the looming threat of a second/third wave, but it looked like things were subsiding. And so it's like, do we go back in person? Do we go hybrid? And so they were looking at different possibilities, and we asked them to take a design lens and say what do you know to be true among everything? Even though we can't predict the future, from a human perspective, from the stakeholder group that you are serving at your core, which is students, what do we know to be universally true?
What we knew to be universally true is that these students need more social-emotional support than ever before; whatever their conditions were, they’ve been isolated, they’ve been cut off from human connection; non-negotiable, and now that we know the teachers need that too.
Okay, great, so we have that fundamental truth going in. Okay, what are we going to do for the schedule? In my mind, it was like a no-brainer—take 20% off the content and fill it with community connection, whatever, it was so obvious to me, 20%, 40% whatever, it’s so clear what the need is. And yet schools could barely budge. It was, well, if we just shift this five minutes, we could get another lab in there, we can… and I'm like, step away from the standards. Who is stopping you?
And this gets back to a fundamental lesson. My very, very first job out of college was working on a political campaign, where I was trying to raise money in order to get Harris Wofford re-elected, who was the Senator from Pennsylvania, started the Peace Corps, early Civil Rights Act. It was a very expensive race at the time; I was 21 years old, and they're like, you have to raise $7 million. Okay! So now that's like the equivalent of $50 million something, and I was like, no problem, 21 years old, government major, I’m a newbie but they'll teach me how to do it. They'll teach me how to raise $7 million, right? And what I learned like week one, there was no ‘they’—I had to figure it out. And of course it was clear, like don't break this rule, there were laws even then, so don't do this, but everything else you can do. So it was a really early lesson in navigating, like how to get towards angles, but how to learn, how to be scrappy and figuring it out. And I think there's a lot of that going on—that just people, like I said, going back to the same mantra, you leaders cannot be expected to be masters at things they've never had a chance to practice. And definitely that's where school leaders are; and definitely, I think that's where a lot of organization leaders are.
Let me ask you one final question. I feel like I've been hugging the conversation a little bit, but kind of tying it back and taking that last statement and tying it back to skills: if you had one piece of advice to give leaders that are struggling through this skills question, what would that advice be?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
I would say design backwards. Design backwards to say, when you think about your teammates, your colleagues, people working at your organization, and you think about what would allow them to do their jobs to their best ability and to identify them—it's not the same job, lots of different nuances, what does that look like? And what is the best way that they may be able to learn those skills in order to not just do their jobs, but to feel that sense of purpose, to feel like they are connected to something bigger than themselves, because we know that that will keep them motivated and keep them excited and engaged, which is important, and to allow them at least for a little bit, I know it's uncomfortable for a lot of people cause they there's a lot of investment, a lot of sunk costs and systems that everyone knows that don't work, but we use them anyway.
Park that aside, and do some dream-storming. If you could say, what would it look like for this to really be a learning organisation and for people to design backwards, to say that they are able to learn what they need to while doing their work, what would allow that to happen? And then to do the analysis to say, well, where are we right now? Where do we need to be? What should we stop investing in? Even though we might've spent a few million dollars, our context has shifted, we know new things now that we didn't know. And if the investment we made is not going to get us to where we need to be, let's make the hard decision and say, let's not keep investing.
I know we are close to the end, but I want to come back to something you said, Lisa. In the context of K through 12 education and how we can make this stick, you said we need to have a few courageous partners. You referenced the UC system specifically regarding SAT scores; I think that applies to the corporate world as well—that we need a few courageous organizations, right?
And so one of the questions I've been thinking about as you've been talking is how do we do that? How do we scale this? Like the d.school, as wonderful as it is, doesn't exist outside of our little bubble here. How do we find those courageous corporations? And how do we scale some of the magic of what you're doing around design to think about the skills and really the workforce of the future that we're trying to design?
So that's kind of my question about advice. How do we scale this?
Lisa Kay Solomon:
It's a great question. So excited for your next guest to answer it.
Yes, we are lucky at the d.school. We're small, and in fact I really want to get props to a couple of my colleagues that run something at the d.school called the Uuniversity Innovation Fellows Program. And they started this many years ago, I don't exactly know, over five years ago to, in some ways address this exact problem, how do we help scale design practices and social impact on college campuses that don't have the luxury of having their own d.school?
And so they created this amazing fellowship program where students apply from universities all around the world with faculty sponsorship. The idea is that they spend time at the d.school—they used to do it in person, but they're now finding ways to design it remotely—and they come and they get some exposure to the work that we do and the practices and the ways of thinking and the mindsets, and then they go back to their university campuses and they apply it towards a social innovation challenge there, or a leadership challenge or a student challenge, so steeped in real-world humans that are trying to create new value in their local places of their campuses.
And the impact has been just extraordinary, and I think that they have researched it and they've written a book about it. So I love that model, because we're scaling communities of practice, both in a kind of thoughtful, high-touch way, though I don't think they were ever an algorithmic substitute for observation and empathy, and thank God, right? Because there's always a need for these kinds of human skills; you need to have a high touch and the d.school is not the only one doing it. I think that, again, we can, we can look to a lot of different industries that know how to do that well, particularly in the care-taking space and even in the, in the teaching space. And then we can sort of allow for networks to share and spread that with their local communities in that way.
So I think that is certainly a way to continue to grow. Now, listen, it's not the exponential scale that we're used to doing when we ship software, but humans are not software, right? And I think this is one of the biggest tensions that I think all human capacity supporters, learners, people analytics need to contend with—that the learning that we're talking about, the learning of mindsets and the learning of these very human practices can be ignited in a short timeframe, you can get exposed to it. You can have the life, but they develop over a long timeframe, right?
So I always say like learning sits within many tensions right now. Learning is fast, right: we can Google something, we get the answer bubble, but learning this kind of learning is slow; we don't become resilient in an hour. We become resilient because we intentionally practice resilient in different forms. And, and so I think we just need to honor some of the constraints of that if we really want to build these skills for a lifetime, we have to honor that scaling bit. They take a little bit longer, but doesn't mean it's not possible.
Wonderful. Lisa, thank you. This has been as engaging as we hoped even more so. And I think your thoughts on how we take these somewhat seemingly nebulous concepts and make them concrete has been incredibly valuable. So, thank you!
Lisa Kay Solomon:
Thank you. So fun. I mean, yeah, lots of learning ahead.
So much food for thought. Thank you—thanks, Lisa.
We are very grateful to Workday for their exclusive sponsorship of this first season of the red thread research podcast today, the world is changing faster than ever, and you can meet those changing needs with Workday. It's one agile system that enables you to grow and re-skill your workforce. Workday is a financial HR and planning system for a changing world. Workday will also host an exclusive live webinar towards the end of the season where you can meet the team Dani, Stacia and myself, and join in a conversation about the future of skills and skills management. You can find out more information, and access exclusive content, at www.workday.com/skills.