Soft Skills and Hard Problems

There’s a cultural bias in business and technology against any information that can’t be quantified. Frank Rose reviews “The Fuzzy and the Techie,” by Scott Hartley, and “Sensemaking,” by Christian Madsbjerg

May 27, 2017
Soft Skills

Bjarke Ingels’s spiralling museum for Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet.

NEARLY SIX DECADES HAVE PASSED since C.P. Snow gave his lecture at Cambridge titled “The Two Cultures,” and in the intervening years the rift he decried has become a chasm. On one side, the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, mathematics); on the other, the humanities. And while English literary types in the 1950s looked down their noses at those in science, the situation in the U.S. today is entirely reversed. Should the humanities even exist? Maybe in a dusty warehouse on the edge of town, but hardly on college campuses, where they suck up resources better devoted to fields of study that might actually lead to a job. Or so you would conclude after listening to the likes of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists?” Mr. Scott asked in announcing new funding priorities a few years ago. “I don’t think so.”
Many would disagree. Among them are Scott Hart­ley and Chris­tian Mads­bjerg, two authors who approach the sub­­ject from quite different stand­­points. Mr. Hart­­ley, a ven­­ture capital­ist and adviser to tech startups, grew up in Palo Alto, Calif., and gradu­ated from Stan­­ford. In The Fuzzy and the Techie: Why the Liberal Arts Will Rule the Digital World, he argues that the world needs not just more coders but more per­spective. Mr. Mads­­bjerg, the author of Sense­making: The Power of the Human­­ities in the Age of the Algorithm, heads the New York office of ReD Asso­­ciates, a Danish con­sulting firm that was once profiled in a mag­azine article titled “Anthro­pology Inc.” The same article noted that Micro­soft is said to be the second largest employer of anthro­polo­gists in the world. Someone should tell Mr. Scott—not to mention Mr. Gates.
“Fuzzy” and “techie” are terms that Mr. Hart­ley picked up at Stan­ford, and though he now lives in Brook­lyn, he writes like some­one whose horizons rarely extend beyond the I-280 free­way. His book is full of stories about entre­preneurs and tech firms that have flourished not despite but be­cause of their liberal-arts origins. In devel­oping Apple’s Mac­intosh com­puter, Steve Jobs famously drew inspira­tion from a calli­graphy course he audited after dropping out of Reed College. When Pay­Pal billion­aire Peter Thiel was at Stan­ford, he studied philosophy and law. Even Mark Zuckerberg studied psychology at Harvard when he wasn’t writing code for what would become Facebook. Mr. Hartley acknowledges that programming skill is important. But “the highest-order challenge,” he writes, is “having the idea”—which won’t come from knowing C++.
So where do ideas come from? A fashionable answer today is the one put forward by Stanford’s “” and the Palo Alto-based consulting firm IDEO: “Design thinking” is Silicon Valley’s idea of fuzzy. It assumes that techniques long used by designers—interviewing people to get a sense of what they need and want from a product, for example—can be systematized to form a general-purpose template for generating creativity on demand. Mr. Hartley doesn’t challenge this view, just as he doesn’t resist the temptation to call people “users” or to label just about everyone he encounters as either a fuzzy or a techie—a practice that reinforces the very divide he seeks to eliminate. After a while, you start to wonder if the terminology itself isn’t part of the problem.
Mr. Madsbjerg, by contrast, dismisses design thinking as vapid and superficial, the product of “‘drive-by’ anthropology.” Nor does he have anything good to say about management science, which seeks an algorithmic solution to business challenges. He acknowledges that big data can lead to startling insights. “But humans exist in worlds,” he writes, “and the objects within those worlds are always context-dependent and layered with meaning.” Context and meaning are necessarily factored out in number-crunching, but they are central to anthropology and ethnography, the favored tools at his consulting firm.
Mr. Madsbjerg has made his case before. The concept of “sensemaking”—drawing on experience and perspective to recognize underlying patterns—was central to his 2014 book, The Moment of Clarity, written with his business partner, Mikkel Rasmussen. In his new book, Mr. Madsbjerg delves into their methodology’s roots in the work of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, from whose impenetrable prose he manages to wrest the notion that social context is all.
To show how this works in practice, he introduces us to other people who rely on context and meaning. The celebrated Danish architect Bjarke Ingels spurns the signature style of, say, Frank Gehry or Mies van der Rohe in favor of a deep dive into whatever he’s working on. Charged with designing a museum for Audemars Piguet’s headquarters in Switzerland, he spoke with a watchmaker who showed him how a mainspring works, a revelation that inspired him to envision the building as a double spiral. When Chris Voss was the FBI’s lead international kidnapping negotiator, he was able to win freedom for an American journalist being held in Iraq by putting aside his own cultural values and developing a form of empathy with the jihadists who were set to kill her.
There’s a cultural bias in business, tech and otherwise, against any information that can’t be quantified—that is “soft,” subjective, fuzzy. Rigorous analysis supposedly requires that it be kept out. Mr. Madsbjerg maintains that this in fact is the easy route, that what he does is the hard stuff. One of his associates says that this makes him feel like he has knives in his stomach. But it is where good ideas come from—and while the data it relies on may not be reducible to numbers, there is actually nothing “fuzzy” about it. ◼︎

More Essays