9 April 2019

The biggest aid to solving complex problems is a shift in mindset

Design Director at Tufts University Thomas Cox believes future leaders will need to bring new tools and a fresh perspective to the world’s problems. The good news is that some of those tools can be borrowed from design thinking and practised by undergraduates now.

Speaking to Laidlaw Scholars he suggested that the global issues and industry challenges we are facing today are so complex they are too big to solve alone. Future leaders should have a mindset that encourages collaboration and ideation.

Creativity and the ability to understand, frame and ultimately solve complex problems are now core and differentiating competencies in the competitive worlds of industry and research. In fact, the latest 2018 World Economic Forum ‘Future of Jobs’ report looked at the top skills required for entering the workplace in 2020. Listed top were, critical problem-solving, critical thinking, emotional intelligence as well as the ability to collaborate and coordinate with others.

Across disciplines

Complex problem-solving requires us to work across disciplines and domains of knowledge. People have to feel safe and have licence to say “I’m struggling with this, how can we work together to solve this problem?”. This team approach to problem-solving requires a willingness to put formal roles aside in ways we haven’t really seen before.

All ideas are welcome

University is a safe place to try out ideas and gain experience of working in new ways. It’s worthwhile looking for ways to engage other students from different areas with different learning styles to your own. This is good practice for the workplace as few organisations in future will have people (and their thinking) sequestered in cubes. Learning to collaborate and working in a way that allows others to feel ‘safe’ contributing ideas is a valuable skill. Design teams are used to working with a mantra of ‘all ideas are welcome’. Pixar refer to this as ‘plussing’. Their team norm is to never shoot each other’s ideas down, instead they build on ideas as a group.

Exercise your creativity

Creativity is an essential part of the problem-solving process. The problem is too many people don’t see themselves as creative. When we think of creative people our minds automatically jump to Steve Jobs or Lady Gaga. There's a shroud of otherness as if only some people are gifted this rare quality, and yet the reality is that we are all born with creativity. If we look at how children play they don’t edit themselves, they haven’t learned yet to be cognisant of how they are perceived. Creativity is not bestowed on the few; it is something we can all express. It’s been proven that the same areas of the brain used for composing music are also used for problem-solving. Creativity is effectively like a muscle. It needs continuous practice or it will become diminished.

You are already creative. Apply it to the problems you are thinking about now. The more you challenge yourself to think creatively the more your confidence and those in the team around you will grow.

Design thinking gives us a framework and tools to think more broadly. It is a future leader’s ability to grasp and try new tools and be open to new ways of working that will mean real success in the future.

Thomas Cox is Design Director in Tufts Technology Services at Tufts University and lectures in the areas of Design Thinking, Service Design and creativity. His team is responsible for ensuring optimal user experience for new technology and services introduced within the University.

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