Recently, I had a conversation with a dean of engineering. He was looking for a big idea—one to take his school from here (top 20 in the US) to there—the ultra-nerd stratosphere.
I offered that he promoted training his students and faculty to think strategically. This is what I sell, so I’m biased; fine. But still, if you’re reading this, chances are that you see value in that stuff, too. He looked at me and said, “what’s that?”. So, I gave him my thirty-second pitch: Facing a complex problem, strategic thinking is an approach that helps you ask a good overarching question, develop innovative answers, and identify your favorite one. It requires working with logic and evidence, being innovative, synthesizing, deciding, and persuading, among other things.
He looked at me and he said: “oh yeah, soft skills.” Well, let me ask you this: If a skill is soft, but not having it gets you fired; is it still soft? That insistence—primarily by people in the hard sciences and engineering—that anything short of equations should be referred to as “soft” is misleading because it suggests that it’s optional or, at the very least, less important. In fact, in many settings, the “soft” skills are as important as the “hard” ones.
Sometimes, a change of culture is needed for a solution to be effective
Sometimes, a change of culture by itself is the solution
Framing the problem as an engineering one would probably have resulted in building another bridge. Instead, the city framed the problem as a human one, aiming at changing people’s behavior. So, Stockholm implemented a “tax and drive” system with transponders installed in the users’ cars that charged a larger amount at rush hour. Within four weeks, the system removed 100,000 vehicles at rush hours. An initial trial system was put in place in 2006, which reduced travel times sufficiently for the general public to notice. This, in turn, is credited for a landslide reversal of public opinion toward supporting the measure. [See Chevallier, Eliasson, Eliasson et al., and Grasso]