In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.
– Shunryu Suzuki
A couple of recent Harvard Business Review articles have discussed how higher education isn’t preparing graduates for the workforce and how engineers need experience in nonlinear thinking. There’s an interesting relationship between the topics, and it also brought back fond memories of my own experience in engineering school over three decades (!) ago.
Chemical engineering provides an exceptional foundation for process thinking. Chemicals generally flow in continuous fashion via pipes through various reactors to create a finished product. Small batches and work-in-process inventory are rare as the stability of WIP intermediates can be low. I mastered the theory and knew the equations, and enjoyed the puzzle of how do you turn raw component A into finished product B.
I’ve always been a hands-on guy, and after three years of heavy duty theory and equations I felt a need to see it in action. I took a semester and a summer off and did a co-op at a Nestlé manufacturing and research facility in Connecticut. This turned out to be one of the favorite experiences of my life and set the stage for my career in manufacturing.
The Nestlé facility was a large production operation that made hydrolyzed plant protein for bouillon cubes. It’s a very nasty process where plant foods such as soy and corn are boiled in hydrochloric acid to break down the proteins into amino acids which are then neutralized in sodium hydroxide. Nearly continuous flow, tens of thousands of gallons per day, strong acids and bases, and a very, very pungent product. Heaven! Well, not for the owner of the house I was renting a room in, who kicked me out after a couple months due to the stench I always came home with.
The research side of the facility was also working with continuous flow production of chocolate custards. This was interesting as the entire production line, miles of stainless steel piping, was completely disassembled every night, cleaned, and put back together before the much smaller day production shift arrived. My first introduction to quick changeover. They were also experimenting with removing the alcohol from wine (why??) using reverse osmosis and the first attempts to package liquid in brick cartons – which we see everywhere today.
My engineering courses had taught me convergent thinking, which is “linear, going through a list of steps to get to a single answer.” I was assigned projects at Nestle that required divergent thinking, where there were many potential answers, and pathways to achieve them. I wasn’t prepared for this, and it took some time to break out of the strict linear thinking mindset and start using what I’d eventually learn is a “beginner’s mind” perspective when looking at problems.
As the HBR article describes, “both types of thinking are important to finding the best final solution, but divergent thinking is particularly important for developing innovative solutions. However, divergent thinking skills are largely ignored in engineering courses, which tend to focus on a linear progression of narrow, discipline-focused technical information. This leads engineering students to become experts at working individually and applying a series of formulas and rules to structured problems with a ‘right’ answer.”
When I returned to school I had an even more difficult time focusing purely on the theory when I knew reality required a completely different perspective. But I muddled through, graduated, and have spent the next three decades making stuff and then helping people continuously improve how they make stuff.
I do know of some schools that are putting a lot of effort into developing more open-ended thinking skills with a hands-on “learn by doing” approach. CalPoly, near me, is one good example. But more can be done.
The second HBR article points out that, in addition to divergent thinking skills, employers are asking universities to train students on soft skills. Not just the “how to act in a business setting” but also “how to learn.”
While employers want candidates with higher levels of EQ, resilience, empathy, and integrity, those are rarely attributes that universities nurture or select for in admissions. Additionally, employers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, have highlighted the importance of learnability — being curious and having a hungry mind — as a key indicator of career potential.
That “hungry mind” is important both to drive creative innovation, but also to help organizations ensure the investment they’re making in their own internal training will create a return. Without knowing how to learn, and wanting to learn, both will fail.
I’ve mentioned before that a demonstrated hunger for new knowledge, and the ability to distill, apply, and teach it, is the primary characteristic I look when hiring managers and especially executives. The same characteristic is increasingly important for all employees at all levels.