The FutureProof Professional: How a Deliberate Practice of Future Skills Will Make (Or Break) You and Your Team

“When new skills become in demand as fast as others become extinct, employability is less about what you already know and more about your capacity to learn. It requires a new mindset for both employers trying to develop a workforce with the right skillsets, and for individuals seeking to advance their careers.”

This Skill Could Save Your Job — And Your Company” by Mara Swan (Forbes)

The Forbes article quoted above goes on to cite that “up to 65% of the jobs Generation Z will perform don’t even exist yet and up to 45% of the activities people are paid to perform today could be automated with current technology.” This was written back in 2016… 

The skill its title refers to? Learnability—our ability to keep learning as things change and new needs and demands arise. We couldn’t agree more. Learnability is the FutureProof Skill. All others depend on it entirely. 

While the article highlights the importance of learnability as a skill, it offers little as to how we go about cultivating it as individuals and as teams or organizations. What does it look like when this skill is highly developed? What does it consist of? 

 

Learnability as a Continuous Practice

When we first think about learning, many of us default to how we learned through the majority of our formal learning experiences: taking in information then memorizing and preparing ourselves to recall facts and figures. On the other hand, we also know that much of what we learn in life comes through our experiences—through our daily work and our daily interactions with others. 

Many reading this will be familiar with the increasingly popular 70/20/10 model, which states that 70% of our job-related knowledge comes from on-the-job experience, 20% comes from interactions with others, and only 10% from formal educational or training events. 

In other words, 90% of our job-related knowledge comes from informal learning experiences.

While we’re seeing an influx of initiatives aimed at increasing “learnability”, we’re also seeing that most are focused on things like reading faster, remembering more, organizing information, etc. 

These are important and relevant skills, but they don’t really address the source of 90% of our knowledge (concrete experience and social interaction). What’s more, in the face of quickly expanding job automation technology, many of the most important skills of the future depend less on memorizing information and more on deliberate practice through experience. 

The reason for this is fairly straightforward: as artificial intelligence and automation advances, the roles that depend on memorizing and reproducing information will increasingly be filled by machines that are many (many many) times more efficient and effective at doing so. 

The roles that will be most difficult to automate, and therefore those which will continue to be filled by human beings, will be those that require “softer” skills — skills that are generally difficult to program (and therefore difficult to teach with the ‘program-the-learner’ approach to training and education). We covered these skills more in-depth in a previous article here. 

We call these FutureProof Skills for obvious reasons—possessing them will allow you to continue to add value and remain relevant into a future where many roles will be yesterday’s news. Some of these skills include:

  • Creativity & Design Mindset
  • Emotional Intelligence
  • Cognitive Flexibility
  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication
  • Decision Making
  • Complex Problem Solving
  • Dynamic Leadership

What makes these skills so valuable in the face of automation is that they are very nuanced.  In other words, they don’t follow simple rules and formulas, but rather involve more complex sets of behaviors and practices that depend largely on the situational context. We might even go as far as saying there are elements of these abilities that are uniquely human (an optimistic view, being careful not to underestimate the future capability of intelligent machines). 

One thing we do know: developing these skills requires deliberate practice over a long period of time‘Deliberate’ in this sense refers first to an awareness of the fact that you are practicing. It also points to being strategic and intentional about how we are practicing and increasing our competence related to both the targeted skills and the practice itself. 

This FutureProof Practice is holistic in nature: it integrates all of our formal, social and experiential learning experiences as we continue to add new skills, knowledge and (dare I say) wisdom to what we do. 

 

Our practice becomes more strategic and intentional when we use a framework to guide it and we build a system to support it

There is no one-size-fits-all FutureProof Practice. Some people have more time than others. For some people certain activities come easier than for others. We may also work on teams that already have some definition to a continuous learning practice that informs how our individual practice takes shape. 

Having said that, most of us lack a basic framework for what a continuous learning practice consists of. As a result, our actions related to deliberate practice are unorganized and are not very strategic or intentional. For this reason we developed the DART Framework, which helps guide our attention and our actions through a simple pattern. 

The DART Framework is made up of 4 stages: Design, Act, Reflect, and Think.

 

 

 

These four stages follow a natural pattern of how we learn through our experiences*. In each stage there are specific tasks we can take to facilitate this continuous learning process:

 

Design: Here we make decisions about what we want to do (D can also be for Decide). We set goals, define experiments, and strategically and intentionally set up experiences for ourselves that will push the edges of targeted skills and knowledge. 

Act: Here we take strategic action guided by our design or plan. Our attention remains focused on the task at hand. We also look to capture ideas and insights as they arise, storing them for future processing when appropriate. 

Reflect: Here we document our experience, highlighting what went well, what was challenging, and identifying any gaps between what happened and what we expected to happen. 

Think: Here we assess the results of our experiments (strategic experiences), investigating the root causes of our challenges, making connections to existing principles or mental models, and identifying key learnings. 

 

*The four stages in the DART Framework are adapted from the widely-used Experiential Learning Cycle model from educational theorist David Kolb. In his model, Kolb uses the terms Active Experimentation (Design), Concrete Experience (Act), Reflective Observation (Reflect), and Abstract Conceptualization (Think). The primary reason for this adaptation is to make the theory simpler, more memorable and more accessible.

 

This cycle repeats itself indefinitely—what we uncover through in the Reflect and Think stages then informs an updated Design. We reprioritize what needs attention and set up new experiences that strategically target specific skills and knowledge. 

The description above serves a very surface-level introduction to this model, which can be explored on many deeper levels. One valuable insight it often helps us uncover is where we tend to get stuck in the cycle, or which areas are in need of attention. 

For example, some of us are good at making detailed plans and setting goals but struggle to execute. Why? Maybe we need to make some adjustments to how we are setting goals. Or maybe we lack a strong why — we may be feeling unmotivated because what we’re telling ourselves we need to do is misaligned with what we really need to do in order to develop the skills that are most relevant and important for us right now. 

Others may be really good at following through with their plans, but they are constantly in ‘get-it-done’ mode, and as a result are always on the verge of burning themselves out. These individuals may not be making any space for reflecting on their experience and unpacking challenges to produce new insights and learnings. So while they may be very busy, they often don’t feel like they are making meaningful progress.

Still others may find refuge in reflecting on the past or burying themselves in the abstract world of ideas. They may struggle to make decisions about what they want to do, and therefore fail to take action. 

Do any of these examples resonate with you as an individual? 

The DART Framework can help shine a light on our own tendencies, and help us focus our attention on breaking through the areas where we typically get stuck, to facilitate a strong FutureProof Practice. 

As leaders, we also have an important opportunity to support our teams to establish continuous Practices that allow them to perform at high levels in a changing environment. 

 

Organizations can both support our individual practices and integrate them into team and organization-level FutureProof Practices

As the nature of the skills we need to develop shifts, so do the approaches that organizations take to support us in this development. It’s no longer a fringe idea that the old ways of doing so are less and less effective. Many organizations are experimenting with new strategies for learning and development, guided by frameworks such as 70/20/10 which place a much greater emphasis on experiential and social learning in the workplace. 

Yet this is new territory for most, if not all of us on some level. Many of these initiatives are struggling to gain traction or the proper buy-in to produce results. Many come up against resistance related to cultural factors, or simply lack the necessary support structures to help people establish new patterns of thinking and behaving related to updated ways of working and learning. 

A good way to think about this shift is as simultaneously bottom-up and top-down. In other words, individuals on every level will need to be given the time and space to properly Reflect, Think and Design in a self-directed manner. Yet without the proper support, many will not make it past the initial ‘Hump of Greatest Resistance’. They may give up before these new behaviors become habits, and before the process becomes truly enjoyable. 

There are also many opportunities for individual practices to feed into team and organizational learning practices. Insights and learnings from experiences can be shared, helping others avoid making similar mistakes that can be costly. Stronger relationships can be established and nurtured. People can feel more engaged and motivated, and their work can become more meaningful and purposeful. 

In this sense, the organization has an important role to play. Here are several specific strategies that can contribute to a strong Team- or Organizational-Level FutureProof Practice:

  • Setting up spaces or platforms where insights/learnings/stories can be shared.
  • Providing appropriate structure for what is shared and how (templates, guiding questions, guidelines, clear expectations).
  • Leading by example from the top down (especially important when the current culture has elements of perfectionism, lacks transparency or resists the vulnerability required to share mistakes and challenges openly). 
  • Offering rewards/incentives/recognition for sharing and/or engaging with what others share. 
  • Providing and educating on tools and resources, such as the DART Framework, that can help guide attention and behavior, as well as create a shared language that facilitates dialogue around the practice itself.

 

Conclusion

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the future belongs to those who are dedicating themselves to building the skills that will be most difficult to automate moving forward. These are mostly soft skills like leadership, communication, creativity, critical thinking and several others, which rely far less on memorizing and reproducing information and far more on deliberate practice through real-life experience. 

The vast majority of us lack structures and systems for this deliberate practice, which severely limits our ability to develop our FutureProof Skills. On both the individual and collective levels, we can position ourselves to lead into the uncertain future by establishing structures that support deliberate practice, and by getting more strategic and intentional about how we are developing our abilities to continue to add value into the future. 

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tom.palmer@blended-people.com

Tom is a Learning Experience Designer at BlendedPeople, founder of Wired Roots Learning and Development, as well as the host of the podcast 'Learning & Development in Transition.' His work is focused on helping organizations become more evolvable in the face of rapid change and increasingly complex challenges.