•   Article   •   4 mins

How Corporate Giants Rely on Human Skills to Get Ahead

When the economy collapsed in 2008, the recession exposed U.S. automakers. General Motors and Chrysler needed the federal government to bail them out. Analysts complained that these car companies got complacent, neglecting innovation in search of short-term profits.

In hindsight, it all seems obvious. The climate crisis, autonomous vehicles, and ride-sharing are now revolutionizing the automotive industry. But how could U.S. automakers have anticipated these issues? Was there a way to get better at creative thinking and problem-solving?

Toyota, the rival Japanese automaker, has a surprising strategy that might have helped.

To incubate innovative thinking, many Toyota factories teach new hires to do their jobs by hand. Instead of just mastering the machinery, Toyota wants workers to grasp the production system on a deeper level. The firm finds that this training builds creativity and problem-solving skills for the long haul.

Of course, telling trainees to tinker on the shop floor will not magically spark innovation everywhere. But Toyota’s simple strategy points to a larger truth. Forward-thinking organizations can try tactics that cultivate so-called “soft skills” at scale.

The Importance of Human Skills

We don’t call them soft skills. For many organizations, these skills are too hard to come by. You might hear terms like “power skills” or “personal skills” instead. We prefer to say human skills because we’re focused on the unique abilities that humans have, that machines can’t quite replicate.

Regardless of what you call them, these skills are critical for individuals and organizations:

  • In their 2018 Millennial Survey, Deloitte discovered that for long-term organizational success, younger workers value interpersonal skills, motivation, integrity, critical thinking, and creativity more than deep subject-specific knowledge.
  • In 2019, LinkedIn found that “soft skills” were the hottest trend in hiring. An overwhelming 89% of talent professionals reported that bad hires typically lack human skills.
  • Looking ahead to 2022, the World Economic Forum predicted that analytical thinking, active learning, and creativity will be the fastest-growing skills. Eight of the top ten talents were human skills.

So, how can organizations keep up with the surge of human skills? Some changes can happen at the individual and interpersonal levels. Employees can try to build their own human skills; managers can nurture these abilities in their workers.

But bold leaders should think even bigger. They can challenge their organizations to develop specific human skills at scale. Though it takes patience and persistence, several innovative companies have already proved the possibilities. 

How can organizations keep up with the surge of human skills?

Creativity at Pixar

Walking through an art gallery or reading a history textbook, it’s easy to assume that creativity comes from individuals. Artists and inventors seem like legends; we worship Da Vinci and Edison for their supposedly singular genius.

But that’s not how creativity works at Pixar. 

“Let’s think for a minute about what it takes to make a Pixar movie,”  prompted Linda Hill, a researcher who studied the animation studio for nearly a decade. “No solo genius, no flash of inspiration produces one of those movies. On the contrary, it takes about 250 people four to five years to make one of those movies.”

Hill found that Pixar used a messy and iterative approach to making movies. Eventually, she distilled three key ingredients in the studio’s secret sauce:

  1. Creative Abrasion: Creators ought to argue with each other. It’s not just brainstorming; they need to fight for their ideas. Diversity alone is not enough. Teams must get comfortable with the tensions that come from different perspectives.
  2. Creative Agility: Ideas need to be tested and adjusted. Experimentation can show the strengths and weaknesses of anyone’s ideas. Even if the ideas fail these tests, the creators can keep learning from and adapting to the limits that they find.
  3. Creative Resolution: In the end, the creative process should bring together contrasting ideas. One team or individual should not dominate the others. More creativity comes from decision-making that values “both/and” solutions more than “either/or” fixes.

These human skills helped Pixar cultivate collective genius. The studio’s co-founder and longtime leader Ed Catmull understood this clearly. He insisted that it was teams, not individuals, who powered Pixar’s creativity.

“Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up,” Catmull declared. “Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better. If you get the team right, chances are that they’ll get the ideas right.”

Communication at Google

Google’s mission is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” But this isn’t just a mantra for the search engine and the software. Google has made transparent communication one of its cultural cornerstones.

“Openness demonstrates to your employees that you believe they are trustworthy and have good judgment,” proclaimed Laszlo Bock, Google’s former SVP of People Operations. “And giving them more context about what is happening (and how and why) will enable them to do their jobs more effectively.”

This attitude came from the open-source software movement. Obviously, Google is a for-profit corporation, but the company sponsors many open-source projects. And the ethics of the open-source movement have deeply influenced Google’s day-to-day operations.

“Assume that all information can be shared with the team, instead of assuming that no information can be shared,” urged Chris DiBona, director of open source at Google. “Restricting information should be a conscious effort, and you’d better have a good reason for doing so. In open-source, it’s countercultural to hide information.”

For example, code is Google’s most valuable asset, but the company keeps it accessible. Newly hired programmers can access almost every line of code on their first day at work. This establishes a strong foundation for trust and internal communication.

Openness isn’t just for software, though. Google is also forward-thinking in its approach to interpersonal communication.

Consider how Google handles “back-stabbing” in work communications. If an employee sends an email complaining about a colleague, they can expect a reply that brings the offending co-worker into the conversation. This teaches everyone to be more direct with each other and challenges them to sort out their differences.

Managers also have to get comfortable with more honest communication. Google implemented an “Upward Feedback Survey” that asks frontline employees to rate their managers on mentoring, expertise, dialogue, and more. These surveys are anonymous, but most managers review their results with the team. After two years of these surveys, managers’ ratings were climbing across the board.

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