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Which Soft Skills are most needed to solve "Hard"​ problems?

There is a general acceptance that “hard skills” (including technical know-how) are not the sole driver of high performance in scientists and engineers. Instead, a  proficiency level in particular soft skills is understood to be of at least equal importance - perhaps more - depending on the particular problems and environmental factors. This article briefly explores why and which soft skills are becoming increasingly vital in our VUCA world (i.e. one that is characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity).


Tackling the “hard problems”


In science, our minds are geared to search for proof, or at least, use the “falsification principle” to ensure our conclusions are drawn from objective evidence. However, not all problems we need to solve come neatly defined and this is particularly true against the backdrop of complex systems. Increasingly, we’re challenged to solve compound and “hard problems” i.e. for which “the solution method and concepts needed for a solution are not obvious” (Leland, Richardson, Lee & Dantzler). In such instances, the most important soft skill we need is that of “active questioning” i.e. generating questions from “active listening” to elicit higher-order thinking. In fact, this brings us full circle to where science first began as the “philosophy of nature”. Sometimes “the more things change, the more they say the same.”


High and low-validity environments


NASA is famous for its mantra “In God we trust – all others bring data” yet NASA itself now recognises with the benefit of hindsight that data alone fails to support optimal decisions in certain situations. Rules and regulations serve us well in high-validity or routinised settings. However when we attempt to make risk-based decisions (e.g. “a priori” analysis), it’s vital that we consider which setting we’re dealing with. For example, “high validity environments” (Kahneman) present sufficient regularity that our decisions can depend on knowledge of repeated patterns e.g. algorithms, statistics and expert intuition. Conversely, “low validity” environments present a degree of variance or novelty that defies expert knowledge and is best served with a “beginners mind” approach. Hence, the soft skill that we need particularly is the cognitive versatility to shift between both approaches seamlessly and the ability to recognise when each is more appropriate.


Dealing with Risk


While highly-regulated sectors emphasise a risk-based approach to ensure key criteria is met, the pharma sector is historically uncomfortable with both change and risk at a conceptual level. This is totally understandable given the potential threat to patient safety when not controlled well. The Status Quo preference of the industry (with a “change is bad as a rule” mindset) and it’s Loss-Aversion bias (towards “change bringing more potential loss than gains”) prepares us badly for risk mitigation. Our response to change can be to overweigh small risks and overlook the possible gains when introducing significant change into a system. The soft skill we need most therefore is of “rational argumentation” as a basis for sound contextual judgement around risk. Such argumentation helps clarify and persuade on grounds of logical coherence in order to avoid “confirmation bias”. It is grounded in, but is not necessarily limited to, empirical evidence and allows for clarity on points of stated uncertainty. Otherwise, all we find are the patterns and causality we hoped to, missing what is irregular yet could be significant. Doubt, as they say, is a powerful teacher.


The Learning Organisation


Senge in his book “The Fifth Discipline” outlined the need for a particular type of collective learning in order to support continuous improvement. He borrowed from education the concept of “double-loop learning” (Argyris) to emphasise the importance of collective questioning of underlying assumptions. These included assumptions about intent, outcomes and responsibities and provide a useful framework for group decision-making. We need to become more sophisticated in how to manage our multi-disciplinary discussions if we’re too tackle the complexity we will face. Luckily these soft skills (including the aforementioned “active listening and questioning”) for optimising group decisions can be trained for and supported but must be deliberatively practised.


Hopefully, H.G. Wells is correct in claiming “intellectual versatility" is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble”.

In conclusion, we need to emphasise “intellectual integrity” on all levels - individual, departmental and organisational - to prevent us ignoring what we can’t explain based on current understanding. The future of pharma. is bright if we can develop the soft skills we need in line with the increasingly specialist technical skills needed to deal with higher potency, smaller batch and more integrated manufacturing.


Fiona Fennell is an Industrial Psychologist who has designed and delivered Soft Skills training to validation engineers and scientists since 2016. She developed Innopharma’s Competency Model for validation professionals (in partnership with clients) to help purpose-train effectively and ensure a consistency of mindset across our team members. She can be contacted on 086 8300321.

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