Fluency of ideas is a highly desirable future work skill, and the ability to come up with multiple ideas around a given topic is something that can be learned and practiced

Udacity -Future of Work

There is a new line of thinking emerging around the topic of our AI-powered future, and what awaits us in the future of work.

If, in past years, the tone of most conversations has been on the dire side—the robots are coming to take your jobs and such—the winds are blowing in fairer directions as people start to realize the opportunities ahead. In short, we’re discovering there is an upside to automation—it’s returning creativity and related soft skills to a place of prominence.

Why creativity is so important

The Herald Sun recently published an article entitled “These Are The Skills Experts Say Will Be The Most Valuable In 2020 And Beyond.” The article focuses on a new global report from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), which was co-authored by Jon Williams. In discussing the report (Workforce Of The Future: The Competing Forces Shaping 2030), Williams offers “advice for staying relevant in the future.” This is the first item on that list:

“Focus on the stuff humans are good at and machines aren’t — like creativity, innovation, empathy and intuition. You can’t hardwire a robot to be human so these skills will be a commodity in an increasingly automated world.”

This dovetails with insights shared in a recent New York Times article entitled “How to Prepare for an Automated Future.” In that article, the author writes that, as we move into this automated future, schools will need to “teach traits that machines can’t yet easily replicate, like creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration.”

The most important future work skills

If champions of liberal arts educations are cheering at these developments, there nonetheless remains the perennial question of how one “learns” soft skills. An article similarly titled to those cited above presents an interesting roadmap for how to approach this challenge. In MIT Technology Review’s What Skills Will You Need to Be Employable in 2030?, the author shares insights culled from a recent study by Nesta and The University of Oxford (The Future Of Uk Skills: Employment In 2030), and lays out what the report states are the “top five desirable future work skills”:

  • Judgment and decision making: Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one.
  • Fluency of ideas: The ability to come up with a number of ideas about a topic (the number of ideas is important, not their quality, correctness, or creativity).
  • Active learning: Learning strategies—selecting and using training/instructional methods and procedures appropriate for the situation when learning or teaching new things.
  • Learning strategies: Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem-solving and decision-making.
  • Originality: The ability to come up with unusual or clever ideas about a given topic or situation, or to develop creative ways to solve a problem.

Fluency of original ideas

As written, each of the above skills can be translated into a set of actions designed to advance the given skill through practice—from engaging in simple cost-benefit analysis exercises to auditing different learning platforms and course offerings. Of the five, the second and fifth come together to produce perhaps the most intriguing opportunity—something we can combine to call “Fluency of Original Ideas.” This is a vital skill that can absolutely be practiced, and it is something you will absolutely get better at if you do practice.

But, how do you do it?

Design sprints and rapid ideation

If you really want to dive deep and push yourself, you might consider learning the Design Sprint process. It’s an intensive method utilized by some of the best brands in the world to rapidly iterate, and bring better products to market faster. You can learn more about Design Sprints by exploring our Design Sprint Foundations Nanodegree program. Design Sprints test your creativity, and definitely require that you quickly generate a great many ideas around a given topic or challenge.

“We’ve found that magic happens when we use big whiteboards to solve problems. As humans, our short-term memory is not all that good, but our spatial memory is awesome. A sprint room, plastered with notes, diagrams, printouts, and more, takes advantage of that spatial memory. The room itself becomes a sort of shared brain for the team.”  —Jake Knapp, from Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Practice makes perfect

All that said, you don’t have to master Design Sprints to get better at rapid ideation. You just have to practice producing more than one idea when one is needed.

If you’re writing a business email, don’t just write one subject line, and hit send. Make yourself write five, and then pick the best one. If you’re a graphic designer, don’t just push out the first workable treatment you land on. Force yourself to do four more, and then pick the best one. If you’re composing a tweet, don’t just keep tweaking the same tweet until you get it right. Work to get five different tweets right, and then pick the best one. If you’re a data analyst, don’t just choose the first chart or graph that seems to make sense. Try four more different visualizations, and then choose the best one. This kind of thinking extends out to tasks as simple as column headings for spreadsheets, to choosing data sets for a self-driving car algorithm.

The goal is that coming up with multiple ideas around any given topic simply becomes second-nature. You do it without thinking, because you’ve built up the intellectual and creative muscle memory to do it on auto-pilot.

Softer skills and higher wages

Returning to our theme of automation and the future of work, an EconoFact article from earlier this year by David Deming, of the Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Graduate School of Education, does an excellent job of highlighting what a shift towards automation means for current and future workers. The article is entitled “Automation and the Growing Importance of Social Skills in the Labor Market,” and in it Deming first notes that, “high-paying jobs increasingly require skills that are more difficult to automate, such as those that involve significant interpersonal interaction.” He cites research showing that, “jobs requiring social skills have experienced strong relative employment and wage growth,” and then concludes with the following:

“Over the last three decades, jobs that combine both social and math-intensive skills have seen strong wage growth. They have also grown as a share of all U.S. jobs. In contrast, many STEM occupations that require high math skill but very little social skills have fared poorly. There is growing demand for workers who are flexible and adaptable and who are skilled at working in team-based settings. All of these skills are still difficult to automate.”

If you’re concerned about the impact of automation on your employment future, embracing simple exercises to help develop your creative muscles can be a rewarding strategy. You’ll become a more fluent and original thinker, and be more in demand accordingly.