Dealing with Ambiguity and Creative Problem Solving

Now there are two skill sets absolutely essential for business (and life). How to teach them? Well, certainly not through brute memorization or rote learning. Though I think the China/India/Brazil phenomenon in real, especially in the field of high technology, they have one big hole. Most of the Asian education system is obsessive about standardized tests (you fail in Japan, and your life is over!). Americans bitch about how much the SAT is taking over, but we still have it much better off than other countries. You can see the effects of this education system if you hire Asian programmers. You must provide insanely detailed product requirement documents or else basic things don’t get done. I think this is more than simply a language divide; it’s rooted in the work culture. Tell us the rules, and we’ll kick butt. Alas, sometimes you must invent the rules and deal with ambiguity on the fly by using intuition. Clearly, this is a generalization, but it’s been consistently true in all software development projects I’ve been witness to.

America can still hold onto its competitive advantage if it keeps these two skill sets – dealing with ambiguity and creative problem solving – at the top of the list. We’re not moving in the right direction, as I outline in my essay "Education and My Generation" in my forthcoming book.

5 comments on “Dealing with Ambiguity and Creative Problem Solving
  • The problem is that it’s far from clear to me that our educational system encourages dealing with ambiguity and creative problem solving.

    Ironically, I think that what’s allowing the US to continue to innovate in this area is the slack we provide our children. They learn these skills when they pursue their hobbies and leisure activities.

  • I agree which is why I said our education system is not moving in the right direction!

    Good point about leisure time, but even that is dripping away with psycho parents scheduling too much shit.

  • Easter European education seems to produce a mix. There are tough centralized exams, but when you talk to programmers, it’s the exact opposite of yoru example: don’t try to over-specify, they will get offended. They will want to understand the big picture, not just their part, and they self-organize to do integration testing.

  • What you say about Asian countries being obsessive about standardized tests and failing without incredibly granular “rules” is absolutely true. But don’t think they aren’t working on it. I was talking to the HR Director for a large Chinese company and she was sorting through massive amounts of graduating undergrads looking for those who could think creatively and deal with ambiguity. Her observation was that those who had good English and participated in a lot of extracirricular activities were the best targets for hires (interestingly, she took almost all the engineers from my theater production). If the average Chinese student finds out that pursuing “alternative” activities may lead to a job by developing other skills, they will all be ready to dive head first into those activities. Organized “creativity” might not be as valuable as leisure time but it is a start.

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