Want Innovative Thinking? Hire from the Humanities

This is the title of an article published last week by Tony Golsby-Smith in the Harvard Business Review blog. Golsby-Smith, the founder and CEO of Second Road, a successful business design and transformation firm in Australia, observes that humanities majors are excellent problem solvers and leaders. Companies, in general, are not lacking in people with great technical training in business, computer science, accounting and so forth, but such training is often deficient for envisioning which directions to go to get ahead of the competition. Employees steeped in the humanities or liberal arts, on the other hand, excel in innovation and creative thinking. How can this be? 

Golsby-Smith: “Business leaders around the world have told me that they despair of finding people who can help them solve wicked problems — or even get their heads around them. It’s not that firms don’t have smart people working with them. There are plenty of MBAs and even Ph.Ds in economics, chemistry, or computer science, in the corporate ranks. Intellectual wattage is not lacking. It’s the right intellectual wattage that’s hard to find. They simply don’t have enough people with the right backgrounds.

He continues: “This is because our educational systems focus on teaching science and business students to control, predict, verify, guarantee, and test data. It doesn’t teach how to navigate “what if” questions or unknown futures. As Amos Shapira, the CEO of Cellcom, the leading cell phone provider in Israel, put it: ‘The knowledge I use as CEO can be acquired in two weeks…The main thing a student needs to be taught is how to study and analyze things (including) history and philosophy.'”

According to Golsby-Smith, people trained in the humanities can more easily imagine innovative solutions to problems because they “have learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.” Unlike the study of purely vocational and technical fields, the study of great art and literature opens minds to big questions; it develops a “big picture” mentality; and it, above all, inspires curiosity. And it is precisely these mental skills and characteristics that are required for leadership in our rapidly changing and unpredictable world. 

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