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CHAPTER II - Beyond Creativity

While enhancing creativity can be valuable, it is not the only human quality that is important for a productive and humane society, and for a successful company. Margaret Levi, Professor of Political Science at Stanford University, stated that empathy is a critical capability for the future. Without empathy, how can a leader—or any worker—relate to others?

Michael Arena, Vice President of Talent at Amazon Web Services, told a story about a senior executive at General Motors (Arena’s former employer) who was tasked with finding a “mobility solution” for an aging population. To explore this problem, he visited several retirement homes and asked residents questions like, “What was it like the day you gave up the keys to your car?” When he heard the response that “it was the worst day of my life,” he committed himself to taking on the problem of mobility. One outcome has been an emphasis at GM on the needs of older drivers, which has included developing self-driving vehicles specifically designed for retirement communities.

Erica Muhl, Dean of the Iovine and Young Academy, shared a similar story about a project undertaken by a group of students in the Academy, a new undergraduate school at the University of Southern California (USC) whose mission is to nurture critical thinking and creativity at the intersection of arts and design, engineering and computer science, business and venture management, and communication. The project was a collaboration between the Academy and USC’s Convergent Sciences Initiative to utilize a user-centered design approach to tackle problems in the field of cancer research and patient care. While traditional medical research focuses on understanding a disease, user-centered design starts with exploring and empathizing with the perspective of the users of any potential solution. This approach yielded a number of valuable insights, such as the fact that patients themselves can be the source of massive amounts of clinically relevant data, “if they can be sourced in ways that are encouraging (and therefore engaging), humanizing as well as quantifiable.” In addition to generating data that was scientifically useful to the researchers, the project showed that feeding data back to the patients themselves empowered them to track and control the progress of their care.

For a number of the researchers, this project provided the first opportunity to interact with and learn from patients on a human rather than a clinical level. Muhl noted, “In every case, [this experience] was life- and work-changing, due to the creation of empathy.” Muhl added that she is convinced that empathy can be taught and, in fact, is being added to the undergraduate curriculum at USC.

From Skills to Capabilities
Empathy is just one example of what John Hagel and John Seely Brown, Co-Chairs of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, have described as “enduring (human) capabilities” that, they argue, have become increasingly important attributes for workers. In a recent paper, they note that “through much of the 20th century, businesses depended almost wholly on skills to get work done.” The archetypal corporation was seen as a collection of individuals with a variety of specialized skills closely linked to a set of well-defined processes or disciplines (e.g., manufacturing, financial management, logistics, engineering, research, sales, HR, etc.) that were organized to produce high quality products and deliver them to customers as efficiently and reliably as possible. Guided by this model, organizations focused on recruiting workers with specific skills and/or providing training programs that teach needed skills. Many identify this as the traditional workscape.

Hagel and Brown identify two different types of capabilities that are becoming critical for business success: innate capabilities—such as imagination, empathy, curiosity, and creativity—that are largely inborn, but that can be cultivated through use and encouragement; and developed capabilities—such as emotional and social intelligence, teaming and adaptive and critical thinking—that can be acquired and improved over time (see Table 1). These capabilities are not only valuable assets in themselves, but workers with these capabilities are well-equipped to identify and learn, often on their own or with minimal corporate support, specific skills they see as important in their work. The same curiosity and resilience that spur them to tackle new business opportunities also serve them well in keeping current in terms of needed skills. In fact, the most effective form of learning is “just in time”—learning not in formal training programs but rather learning in the course of tackling a new challenge that may call for new skills to be mastered—growth that is reminiscent of the way Duke Ellington’s jazz musicians continually improved by working together and pushing themselves to try new things.

TABLE 1: Example of Generative Design

Source: Deloitte Center for the Edge, Deloitte Insights: Skills Change but Capabilities Endure. See:

Alexi Robichaux, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of BetterUp, noted that it is tempting for organizations to get overly focused on the importance of skills because they are relatively easy to define and measure. But it is the underlying capabilities such as curiosity and a willingness to change that provide the psychological resources needed to acquire new skills. Other capabilities like empathy, compassion and cognitive agility are also important—and, like skills, can be learned and inculcated into the modern workscape.

The Dimension of Trust
Another vital attribute for a healthy organization identified by the Roundtable participants is trust. Starling Trust Sciences works with financial services firms to manage non-financial risk by identifying the human factors that erode trust or build trust. According to Starling Chief Executive Officer Stephen Scott, rather than developing elaborate technology-based risk management systems that rely on multiple layers of defense—the conventional method of defending companies against internal and external threats—the company focuses on supporting the human factors that enhance trust. Through a combination of behavioral science, organizational network analytics and machine learning, Starling helps organizations to identify and harness “networks of trust” and to build on those by “cultivating a sense of belonging and community, fostering camaraderie and collaboration, and engaging people in a shared mission and a common culture”—in other words, relying on the human dimensions of trust rather than trying to impose technology-based solutions.

Trust is also a critical factor at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). According to Robert Gibbs, the agency’s Chief Human Capital Officer, assuming positive intentions on the part of all employees is a working principle at NASA, where virtually every decision can be a matter of life or death. In areas where the stakes are lower, there is a strong culture of experimentation where people are encouraged to learn from their failures. The organization is very much mission driven, which plays a big role in inspiring employees to take their jobs seriously. One measure of worker commitment at NASA is that there is almost no churn in its workforce.

Michael Arena of Amazon Web Services noted that trust needs to be seen contextually. That is, there are circumstances where trust is essential and other situations where it can be disastrous. Large organizations do not consist of a single, homogenous culture, but rather are made up of a collection of subcultures that are shaped by their leaders and by the nature of their mission and goals. Some parts of Amazon are mainly focused on stabilizing performance in order to improve efficiency and reliability while others are committed to pursuing innovation.

For most large commercial organizations, the dominant goal is still achieving scalable efficiency—driving down costs by optimizing and standardizing operations, a goal that discounts the value of individual contributions. In such an environment, John Hagel noted, the most important questions are, “How quickly can I automate my operations?” and “How many jobs can I eliminate?” And the only purpose of learning is to get work done faster and cheaper.

In fact, according to Sarah Gretczko, Chief Learning and Insights Officer at Mastercard, in many large corporations, the budget for severances can be up to five times larger than the budget for training.

While CEOs like to talk about the need for reskilling their workforce, they often fail to make the connection to individual workers and their needs. Many leaders vacillate between the desire to innovate and grow and the imperative to drive down expenses. Increasing the commitment of leaders to their employees, especially in publicly traded companies where pressure for consistently increasing profitability is unrelenting, may require a convincing demonstration of the superior return on investment (ROI) of retraining existing workers versus firing less skilled workers and hiring new ones.

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