Thursday, 27 June 2013

Teaching Soft Skills: Creativity

In a recent issue of The Chemical Engineer, the IChemE's magazine for members, Jamie Cleaver wrote an article with similar content to this one, which was brought to my attention again in comments from one of the Chartered Engineers who review our Year 3 design projects. Dr Cleaver specialises in teaching soft skills courses for engineers, so he presumably thinks that they are teachable, but personally I'm not so sure with many of them.

I'm pretty sure from personal experience than entrepreneurship isn't really teachable, and that it may well be diametrically opposed to employability, but I'm still exploring the skills which impact upon employability for Chemical and Environmental Engineers. The main problem here for anyone wishing to base such an attempt on empirical evidence is that there are no real social sciences - standards of proof in the things which are referred to by that name are pitifully low. Then there is the fact that the commonly held understanding of these subjects relies upon the popularity of books aimed at the general public - take for example "Emotional Intelligence". The idea that there might be such a thing as Emotional Intelligence, and that this might be a predictor of success in the workplace may be thought uncontentious truth by many outside psychology as a result of the best-selling book of that name, but it is just one theory of many within its field, and not widely considered the best.

Then there is the Myers-Briggs Index, which many in human resources circles think a solid way of understanding an applicant's personality and potential value to an organisation. The index was devised by an mother and daughter without relevant experience or qualifications, based on their amateur understanding of Jung's personality types, in turn based on nothing more than the intuition of Jung, an hallucinating psychotic.
The least contentious idea in this area is that of there being a big five personality traits : openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Whilst the idea that an individual has a persistent ranking in each of these things throughout life is extremely well supported (by social science standards) by empirical evidence, there are a number of problems with attempting to use even these broad measures to help us to teach employability.

1. The vast majority of variability in these traits between individuals is a combination of genetics, and early life experience, including birth order.We are teachers, not gene- or psycho- therapists.

2. Whilst one might think initially that for each of these parameters there might be a good - bad continuum, this does not follow. For example, low agreeableness amongst men is linked to high earning power, but it may be that extremes of all of these traits are more or less as bad as each other. 

3. Against the background of a relatively fixed personal set of traits, there is a common trend for agreeableness and conscientiousness to increase with time, and extraversion, neuroticism, and openness to decrease. If we trained students over a year with a view to making them more agreeable and conscientious, and had a reliable way of measuring these traits, how would we know if it was simple maturation which had caused any improvement we saw?

4. These traits for which we have some evidence are too broad to be able to be useful in either screening or training. The things other than technical ability which make a good engineer are not on the list.

5. The idea that there are limited number of sets of personality traits which make a person a good employee in general, or a good engineer in particular is without factual basis.  

So as engineers, we have a problem. In order to control something, we need a reliable measure of the thing we want to change, but there are no reliable set of parameters to measure here, and no agreement on what would constitute a good or bad set of scores.

Neither are there any reliable ways to intervene to alter any scores which we thought required such intervention. All kinds of things are done to try to do this, bit no-one has actually proved that they have improved matters relative to no intervention, or relative to a standard intervention (in teaching there is a tendency for all interventions to improve matters slightly, known as the Hawthorne effect).

Nor is it even that plausible that we can alter people's personalities to our liking when the best evidence we have suggests that almost all of the variability on the most reliable parameters is other genetic or based on early life experience. Even if we had the requisite knowledge and power to alter people's personalities to suit potential future employers, do we have the right to require students to sign up for personality surgery? To return to the issue of creativity, many extraordinarily creative people have been highly neurotic. Assuming we could train students in creativity, what if it also increased neuroticism? Would this be ethical?

But it isn't really our job to alter students personalities, and I'm glad that it isn't in our power to do so. Kathryn Eccleston's "The Dangerous Rise of Therapeutic Education"addresses this issue in a broader context, and is well worth a read. It isn't in our power to help students in this area, but we may harm them with our cack-handed attempts to do things outside our professional competence.

In the HR field things are particular complicated: HR staff cannot admit the truth (that there are no reliable means to predict someone's performance in a job) or people will start wondering why they hire HR people. Pseudo-science like the MBTI may come to their rescue, but engineers generally have little time for ill-founded nonsense.

Engineering as a profession has places for people at the extreme end of every one of the big five personality traits. There are jobs for highly creative neurotics in design, the most nitpickingly conscientious in QA, extraverted agreeable salesmen as well as introverted, disagreeeable commissioning engineers. There is no wrong personality type, and if there were, we would have to consider it a disability, and let them in too. So my job in this area is not to try to measure or change students personalities, but to help them discover for themselves what they are, and learn their own ways of coping with working with others with different personalities in an often stressful high-stakes environment where measurable outcomes are more important that harmonious relationships.

My approach is to put students in groups which I choose randomly (and strongly resist changing), and set them very challenging tasks with short and inflexible deadlines, with a close watch via peer assessment over group dynamics. Students are given an opportunity to learn for themselves in an academic setting how to work with other engineers to get a job done. This methodology simply replicates the situation many young engineers find themselves in at the start of their careers. It is my observation that the best products do not always come from the most harmonious, democratic, or well-balanced groups, and engineering is all about the product.

And as for creativity? I might try out some of the structured methods to facilitate creativity in my design courses, most likely the Adapted McMaster 5-point strategy which Jamie Cleaver highlights, which was developed by Chemical Engineers. This isn't an attempt to teach creativity. Such methodologies do not alter the properties of participants, but they might provide a formalised way of maximising the efficiently of their interaction. Unlike amateur personality surgery, this seems possible, and worth a try. If nothing else, such exercises at the start of a course can be fun, and can give nascent teams something soft to cut their teeth on. Even if they are only a bit of fun, some engineers like fun. Here's an engineer joke to prove it:

A man in a hot air balloon realized he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a man below. He descended a bit more and shouted, "Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him half an hour ago, but I don't know where I am."

The man below replied, "You are in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet about the ground. You are at approximately 42 degrees north latitude and 83 degrees west longitude." "You must be an engineer," said the balloonist. "I am," replied the man, "but how did you know?" "Well," answered the balloonist, "everything you told me is technically correct, but I have no idea what to make of your information, and the fact is I am still lost."

The man below responded, "You must be a manager." "I am," replied the balloonist, "how did you know?" "Well," said the man, "you don't know where you are or where you are going. You made a promise which you have no idea how to keep, and you expect me to solve your problem. The fact is you are exactly in the same position you were in before we met, but now, somehow, it's my fault."

There are other supposed "soft skills" such as communication and critical thinking which don't look to me like soft skills at all, as they have a great deal of hard fact behind them in an engineering context, allowing performance in these areas to be measured, and plausibly improved. I'll save them for another post.

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