To Think Is To Solve

Originally published in the Informanté newspaper on Thursday, 16 February, 2017

How often have you seen the following in job ads? “Someone keen to take responsibility and with the confidence to challenge established practices and come up with new ways of working…” “An enquiring mind and the ability to understand and solve complex challenges are necessary…” “We are looking for innovative minds and creative spirits ...”

What do these have in common? They all ask essentially the same two things: The ability to use your own initiative, to think for yourself, to be creative and pro-active, and the ability to resolve problems, to think logically and/or laterally, to use ingenuity to overcome difficulties and to research and implement solutions.

In other words, analytical and problem solving skills. Now one would assume that these skills are vital to surviving in the modern world, yet study after study has shown that these skills are lacking in a significant percentage of the population. The American 2012 Critical Skills Survey, which polled 768 managers and executives, found that employers rated most of their employees as either average or below average in communication skills (62%), creativity (61%), collaboration (52%), and critical thinking (49%).

And yet, these skills are essential for every business. Any business will have challenges or obstacles which need to be overcome.  If they employ people who are adept at solving problems at all levels, it reduces the need for complex chains of command or lessens demand on managers' time. In short, it will help save time and therefore money. Analytical skills are becoming quite important - we are all bombarded with huge amounts of information every day! Being able to quickly yet comprehensively identify and evaluate the most important or relevant information for the business and your job will be an increasingly essential skill.

Even here at Trustco, it is how Dr Quinton van Rooyen evaluates employees: “We’ve identified 5 basic types of employees. 

The Blind Employee - These employees can’t see a problem even if it is staring them right in the face. They work like robots, following a set procedure, and never notice if there’s something wrong, or something that is impeding efficiency. You don’t need these employees – they can be replaced by automation.

The Averse Employee - These can see a problem, but they try to avoid it as they are afraid doing something about it might make them responsible for it. These employees are actively trying to avoid adding value to your business. Replace them.

The Identifying Employee - These employees can see a problem, but they can’t take the initiative to solve it, and simply report it up their reporting line. These are the minimum acceptable employees, your basic employees. They should form the backbone of your company.

The Transformative Employee - These employees can identify a problem, and once handed a problem that’s been identified, solve it. These employees should be your supervisors and line managers. They’re the employees who are making your business great. 

The Revolutionary Employee - These problem-solving employees are not only great thinkers and innovators, but they also have the ability to get employee buy-in. They can thus solve social/people problems, and involve others in the problem solving process. These employees can change the world, and should be your senior and top management. “

So if these skills are truly so indispensable, why do so many people lack them? The answer can be found in our model of education. For too long, education has been at the whim of the memorization model of education, where students are taught simply to receive, memorize and repeat information. Teachers simply drop the information on students, with little in the way of discussion and they are expected to sit down, shut up, and remember. This might have been appropriate for an age in which student were to be merely compliant, obedient factory workers – but those jobs are increasingly being replaced by machines, and the mind is the one area where machines have yet to supplant us.

Then there’s the problem-solving model of education – where students and teachers work together in communicating and learning information. Teachers ask questions, and engage students to think critically and evaluate the material – they create critical questions and answers that not only better help students understand the material, but also enable them to remember it better.

Teachers, naturally, are a bit resistant to these methods. After all, this is not how things are done! Students shouldn’t talk back to teachers! Well, yes – if what you want is obedient drones, instead of productive members of society. That model is quite authoritarian, and has no place in a democratic society. The other concern, of course, is that teachers worry that students will come up with ideas that the teachers won’t understand. Well, if a child can outthink you, you’ve either got a very clever child, or…

The fact of the matter is that they should be able to explain their methods, and thus teachers should be able to follow their reasoning. And even if they did not know, there’s no shame in stating that, and assuring them you’ll find out. After all, teachers are expected to stay up to date on their field – and by finding out the answers to their students’ questions, they too will learn something new. 

With the importance of analytical and problem solving skills only increasing year-on-year, it becomes essential that we all possess these skills. After all, if you had to choose an employee or a co-worker, would you rather have one that was analytical, insightful and problem-solving, or would you prefer one that could rattle off a bunch of fact, but was dumb-founded when asked something they didn’t memorize?


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