Raphael, School of Athens, 1509–1511, fresco (Stanza della Segnatura, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican)

Gimme an “A”! — Why STEM Isn’t Enough

In my previous post I reintroduced the Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) technique and covered a few of my recent experiences spreading the VTS gospel. I also teased some studies backing up why we need VTS in today’s corporate environments. Today, I’ll delve a little deeper.

A fantastic article by Cathy N. Davidson discusses the findings of two studies conducted by Google to discover what truly defies their outstanding employees. It turns out that it isn’t technical skills at all. It is, instead, those oft-maligned and misunderstood “soft skills”.

Project Oxygen, a multiyear research initiative, focused on Google’s top managers. It was followed by Project Aristotle, which analyzed hundreds of Google’s teams. Both utilized rigorous analytical structures and included input form a wide variety of experts and teams. Great articles on both of these projects are available online. I highly recommend these pieces by The Harvard Business Review and The New York Times Magazine if you’d like to dig into the details.

For the purposes of this post I want to focus on the findings — what are the determining factors on who manages well and who doesn’t? What makes a high-performing team? To quote Davidson (emphasis mine):

The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas……Project Aristotle shows that the best teams at Google exhibit a range of soft skills: equality, generosity, curiosity toward the ideas of your teammates, empathy, and emotional intelligence. And topping the list: emotional safety. No bullying. To succeed, each and every team member must feel confident speaking up and making mistakes. They must know they are being heard.

The points emphasized above are exactly the skills VTS helps to develop — and the environment VTS seeks to create. The success of any VTS session depends entirely on each participant sharing their point of view; as well as listening to, and engaging with, the other points of view presented. It is, by definition, a safe space where everyone’s thoughts and ideas are not only encouraged but required. It is through the brainstorming, elaboration and revision steps of the discussion that deeper insights are achieved.

At the same time, VTS encourages critical thinking by requiring participants to back up their assumptions with evidence — What do you see that makes you say that? It also requires the group to link their thoughts together and construct a new narrative. Can you move past your initial response to an image and incorporate the ideas of others? Can the story you create collectively be a better, more complete story than one you tell by yourself? I believe the clear answer is yes. If your workplace culture proposes to value diversity then it must encourage diverse viewpoints. If certain members of the team aren’t contributing because they don’t feel heard, then their value is being left on the table.

Not only is VTS is a fun team-building exercise, it has real-world impact. It helps to foster the skills and environments proven to create success in collaborative product and design driven environments. STEM, of course, is critically important and I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. I’m merely proposing that it is not enough — just ask Google.

And don’t forget to include the “A”!