top of page

"It's not what you do, it's how you think". The 4 cognitive skills that are the future of human work

Updated: May 11, 2022

On the 1st February this year my eldest child started school. One day, during the orientation week, I visited a classroom for year 5 and was struck by what was pinned on the wall. Lots of different critical thinking techniques, such as de Bono's 6 Hats, the Simplex model of problem-solving. But very few pictures of animals, dinosaurs, planets. How to think has replaced what to think as educators recognise that knowledge is ubiquitous, but critical thinking is not.

Despite this, Elon Musk thinks that by 2030, there will be nothing you can do that a computer can't.

And an Oxford University study estimates that 47% of jobs are at risk from artificial intelligence or robotics.

No matter where you look, jobs are already being automated. Rio Tinto has been using driverless trucks at its mines since 2008. The Sydney Harbour bridge human toll collectors disappeared in 2009. Cashiers - how quaint! - are on their way out with Bain predicting the service sector being particularly hard hit by automation.

Add in outsourcing, the gig economy, globalisation, the ageing population and a few other technological and social trends and it's easy to ask,"what on earth will humans do for work in 10 or 20 years' time?"

Even if you learn a new skill, it turns out that the half life of skills is rapidly decreasing: a new skills loses half its value in 5 years.

The 4 C's

Luckily for you and me, researchers at, the Australian Youth Foundation and even LinkedIn are coming to a similar conclusion about the future of work: there are distinct, human cognitive skills that computers will find it harder to replace., the Partnership for the 21st Century puts these skills into a framework with 4 Cs.

  • Critical Thinking

  • Creativity

  • Communication

  • Collaboration

These are the skills which are in demand. For example, demand for critical thinking skills in job ads rose 158% between 2012-2015 according to the Australian Youth Foundation's report.

And these are - fingers crossed - the areas where humans can avoid being put out to pasture by the artificial intelligence we create.

It's not what you do, it's how you think

For today, I just want to focus on one of these core skills: critical thinking.

Just as schools have moved more emphasis onto this area, we believe there is a huge opportunity for organisations to differentiate and win through the way they think.

Companies like Spotify, Atlassian and Zappos are already becoming famous not for what they do, but for the way they solve problems and make decisions.

Spotify has a process for decisions called DIBB. Data, Insight, Belief, Bet. This idea of making bets, recently popularised in Annie Duke's book Thinking in Bets is so simple and yet so useful. It means acknowledging the role of luck, being open that you might be wrong, having issue-centred discussions, and so we believe it's a great way to make decisions under conditions of uncertainty. That is a skill that AI can't do very well yet.

Atlassian has an entire team playbook which spells out how they think and solve problems. One favourite is their version of a pre-mortem - how to think about risk before kicking off with a project. And Zappos has its famous $4,000 incentive to trainees to leave the company during the 4 week induction training (designed to make sure that all the people that stay really want to work there).

The BIG question: can we improve critical thinking in adults?

In a recent discussion with an HR Director, she asked whether critical thinking is a skill that can be taught? Or is it an innate ability? If it can be taught, is trying to teach it to people in the workforce too late?

There have been some meta-studies of the literature and below are their key findings.

  1. Critical thinking training works best when it is heavily flagged as specific training for that purpose. The skills don't get retained as well if they are part of a broader course and only mentioned loosely.

  2. Metacognitive strategies - that is, "thinking about how you think", for example a pre-mortem, or thinking in bets - can be effectively taught and retained in many instances.

  3. What's more, there is evidence that these strategies can be transferred to other kinds of situation (new domains) after the training.

  4. It's easier to help someone else think clearly than to help yourself. So training these metacognitive strategies is ideally done in groups that work together and can collectively adopt explicit new processes for meetings, decisions, problem-solving and so on. If not in groups, then trainees are well served to have buddies to help them retain and practice their thinking strategies.

Here at Realizer, we've been able to run a long term test of training decision-making skills amongst a senior management team in a mid-sized organisation. Assessing decision making processes before a training program, and then 1 year afterwards, we saw improvements in their ability to make strategic decisions, align on what success looked like, consider opportunity cost, and look for data for and against their hypothesis - all high value critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking case study

A step by step approach to changing the way your organisation thinks

For your organisation to not just survive, but even thrive, you will need to make sure your people can: learn faster than others, collaborate better, communicate effectively, generate creative solutions to problems - and think critically. How to do that? We suggest four steps.

First, the leadership team needs to align on the importance of helping your people do their best thinking.

Second, you should set specific expectations, instructions and processes for them to use. For example, why not change the way the problem-solving, creative thinking and decision-making parts of meetings run. Why not even introduce the 6 Hats technique being taught at my daughter's school - it's proven to help organisations make much quicker, well-thought through and less biased decisions. This is where training can help, and we suggest training the working group together so they can co-create new ways of thinking. Give them a buddy, or decision-coach to work on smaller informal decisions and try new ways of thinking.

Third, you should emotionally motivate people to get involved and try new things. If having quicker, better, more fun meetings, being more creative and making better decisions isn't enough, then have them think through how it will help their career. And make sure their manager is on board with the program.

Lastly, you need to make it as easy as possible for them to do their best thinking. Using your brain in new ways can actually be a strenuous experience. People like to operate in familiar ways, much like driving your car on the left side of the road is much less taxing than arriving in a new country and driving on the opposite side. So: make it easy for them to find, understand, test and learn from new ways of thinking. Atlassian do this with their team playbook which is easy to use and has very specific instructions.

Cloverpop is a new decision-making collaborative software which can guide you through a robust critical thinking process and save time.

In the past, people used to say, "People are our greatest asset," but I believe that cliche needs to be replaced with "The way our people think is our greatest asset."

Written by Rob Pyne, Director of Realizer - a training company specializing in the 4Cs


bottom of page