Selecting 21st Century Skills

The Institute for the Future’s (IFTF) developed their vision for skills needed in 2020, which include…
Sense-makingdetermine the deeper meaning or significance of what is being expressed
Novel & Adaptive Thinkingidentify solutions and responses beyond the rote or rule-based
Computational Thinkingtranslate data into abstract concepts, use data-based reasoning
Transdisciplinarityunderstand concepts across multiple disciplines
Cognitive Load Managementdiscriminate and filter information for importance and maximize functioning using a variety of tools and techniques, and
Virtual Collaborationwork productively, drive engagement, and demonstrate presence as a member of a virtual team.

I recognize the value of these skills, and I’d like to discuss how organizations might select for them.  These skills all share one key characteristic – “systems” perspective and thinking.  Perspective is a theory developed by Bob Kegan (a Harvard psychologist), and it explains both how people develop and also how they understand and react to similar situations in different ways.  At Teleos Consulting, we’ve applied his ideas to demonstrate that perspective changes HOW people perform skills – even the simplest skills.  Basically, IF YOU WANT TO SELECT FOR  21st CENTURY SKILLS, YOU MUST ASSESS PERSPECTIVE.

Once people develop the “systems” perspective, they recognize and understand multiple viewpoints into the same situation, they see situations as dynamic not static or transactional, and (perhaps most important) they can manage the natural conflicts that arise when people with different views and interests work together (especially virtually). For example, with sense making, that deeper significance often comes from seeing how a single piece of information will touch multiple viewpoints – and recognizing how it might affect organizational goals, individual goals, and relationships both inside and outside the organization. Another example is adaptive thinking, which we see as a direct result of the systems perspective, compared with rote and rule thinking, which are the direct products of the two previous stages.

So, what are the implications for selection? Following are some simple yet critical steps to follow, if you want to select the talent you need for the future.
1. Get widespread agreement on definitions – This step is a good example of the systems perspective. The skills listed by IFTF are compelling, but you need to build consensus on exactly what these skills will look like in your organization. Make sure to include three components – knowledge, action, and expected result/impact.

2. Don’t limit selection to interviewing – Interviewing is useful, but you should also assess these skills by observing people in action. Use alternative methods like case reviews, presentations, and group discussions that ask people to apply the skills – and then watch how they perform.

3. When interviewing, focus more on HOW than WHAT – A common trap is focusing more on what people did than how they did it. However, to assess perspective you must focus on HOW people think about their work, using questions like these from our perspective-based interview guide.
a. Tell me about a project where you had to negotiate and manage goals across a virtual team.  WHAT did you do and HOW did you do it?
b. Tell me about a time you received conflicting project requirements from different team members.  WHAT did you do to resolve the conflict and HOW did you do it?
c. Tell me about a time when you had to anticipate and prevent a potential problem on a project.  WHAT did you do and HOW did you do it?
d. Assume you have the task of coaching a team member who is not “strategic” enough.  WHAT steps would you take and HOW would you do them?

4. When interviewing, ask people to model their skills – If you’re ever in doubt about whether a person has some skill, then ask them to model it. Whenever someone tells me about a conversation they had (“I talked to that person and resolved the conflict”), then I ask them to talk to me they same way and then I take on the viewpoint of the other person. IF someone really has they skills and can see the other person’s viewpoint, he will usually jump right into the role-play, and if he doesn’t then you may have learned the limits of his skills.

I was glad to have this chance to discuss selecting skills for the future.  Next up will be how to develop and manage these skills on the job.

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