Dan Erwin: Thinking skills

Deep Smarts, Deep Thinking and the Humanities

The 2020s are placing extraordinary demands on workers and organizations. Not just on managers and execs, but also on ordinary workers. A wide range of competencies and experiences are necessary for senior execs. But ordinary workers are also facing strategic uncertainty, new models of business and organization as well as new intellectual demands.

So what's the beginning place for ordinary workers? The answer to that is not surprising--deep smarts. That kind of expertise is always built on a distinct set of competencies: the humanities. It is the kind of stuff that more mature clients are after, especially when they face serious decision making or strategic needs. But it's only in the last few years that firms are really recognizing this need. In fact, years ago one highly placed officer told me he'd keep me busy the rest of my life if I could develop deep, strategic thinkers for his staff needs. I knew that given the intellectual decision making of his staff, it was an impossibility. So at the time I rejected his offer. I knew very few of his people were capable of learning the process, but I didn't know why. One thing was clear: he needed more people with a different kind of education and very few of his people had the right kind of education.


But I also recognized that deep smarts is the engine of every organization. You can’t really progress without them. And you’ll manage a lot more effectively if you understand what they are, how they are built and cultivated—and how they can be transferred to others. 

Of course, the real issue surrounding the deep-thinking failure is that a terrific number of business people have little to no background in the humanities supporting their business thinking, thinking which is primarily oriented to scientific thinking models—and not deep thinking. In contrast successful business leadership requires both humanities and scientific models of thinking. Since 2015 a number of business journals have picked up on the fact, including several articles in the Harvard Business Review and the MIT Sloan Management Review. By the humanities I refer to all languages and literatures, the arts (including painting, drama and music), history, philosophy and rhetoric, and the sorely abused English major. These are the required in top schools like Dartmouth, University of Chicago and Columbia University—in addition to whatever you majored in, like say math, statistics and engineering. Unlike my daughters, I didn’t go to any of these schools, but I got a big dose of the humanities in my undergrad at a small Kentucky state college. And even more so in my extensive graduate work.

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