MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Ideal problem solvers are both specialists and generalists

Contributed by guest blogger Arnaud Chevallier

There is wide agreement among researchers that effective problem solvers—or problem-solving teams—are not just good specialists in their fields, they also are good generalists. In other words, T-shaped professionals.

Reading employer surveys, executives seem to agree. For instance, a 2014 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers lists the top skills sought by employers as "ability to work in a team structure; make decisions and solve problems; plan, organize, and prioritize work; and communicate." Analyses by other organizations—including the Council of Graduate Schools, the Conference Board, and the Association of American Colleges & Universities—concur. All make the same observation: in addition to having specialized knowledge, new hires must be able to communicate effectively, work in teams, think analytically, be innovative, and solve complex problems. Succinctly said, executives want their employees to be good strategic thinkers.

Don't assume that new hires are good generalists / strategic thinkers

While there is a strong demand for strategic thinking skills, not much formal training focuses on developing them. For instance, graduate programs in science and engineering focus primarily on developing specialist skills and not "soft skills" whose very name suggests some level of contempt. Therefore, it is not surprising to see a mismatch between employers' needs and training, as reported by various analyses, such as a 2012 McKinsey report and a 2011 survey from one from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools. Management programs are better, but most MBA strategy courses focus on acquiring a strategic advantage for the organization rather than focusing on how to think strategically.

Develop your organization's strategic thinking skills

One way to tackle a new business challenge is to hire consultants. For a substantial fee some consultancies will provide the strategic thinking skills that, in conjunction with the deep knowledge of your organization, will help you with a specific project. While this approach works to tackle an issue quickly, it is probable that the skill transfer to your people will be minimal, and next time you face a complex situation you may have to call on your consultants again.

Instead of outsourcing the strategic thinking, consider hiring personnel who bring those skill sets and/or developing this skill set in your existing employees. Cultivating those skills in your team allows you to tailor the skill acquisition to your organizational culture. Strategic thinking capabilities can be developed through:

  • Internal training led by a group of generalists who meet with project teams periodically to provide an external perspective, help them think through their issues, and point them to external resources and other teams in your organization who have faced similar issues.
  • Custom training programs like those provided by MIT Sloan (best suited for large groups).
  • Project based training. This approach develops a common toolbox that bridges across functional units, thereby strengthening the cohesiveness of your initiatives and helping your people leverage the strengths of their colleagues in other parts of the organization.

Consider these ideas for developing broad, transferrable skills in your organization.

Arnaud Chevallier is an MIT Sloan Executive Education participant and an Associate Vice Provost at Rice University where he teaches strategic thinking in the School of Engineering and the Leadership Center. He writes about problem solving at Powerful Problem Solving and his book, Strategic Thinking for Complex Problem Solving, is forthcoming. 

This entry was posted in Guest Blogger on Tue Dec 09, 2014 by MIT Sloan Executive Education


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