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Building a Future-Proof Workforce: Developing Essential Power Skills for Long-Term Success

The world of work is changing at unprecedented speeds due to globalization and new technologies. As organizations adapt to disruptive changes in their industries, they must focus on developing the right skill sets in their workforce to succeed now and into the future. Research shows that certain "power skills" will remain in high demand across industries, economies, and time. These skills go beyond technical or job-specific abilities to include qualities like adaptability, creativity, collaboration, and lifelong learning.

Today we will explore the research behind six key power skills that are essential for organizations to prioritize developing in their workforce today: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, cognitive flexibility, social and emotional intelligence, leadership, and sense-making.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking has long been recognized as an important skill for solving complex problems and seizing new opportunities (World Economic Forum, 2018). It involves analyzing and evaluating information to form logical judgments and make informed decisions. Researchers have found critical thinking to be one of the most in-demand workplace skills globally, remaining steady through 2030 despite technological advances that automate routine cognitive work (Frey and Osborne, 2013). Organizations need to cultivate critical thinking skills to empower their workforce to navigate constant change, assess risks and implications of decisions, and question underlying assumptions.

Developing Critical Thinking in the Workforce

Conducting after-action reviews following projects allows teams to critically reflect on what worked well and identify areas of improvement (McNulty et al., 2018). Eliciting diverse opinions through active listening and debate encourages critical thinking over consensus. Rotating roles builds new perspectives. Self-paced online courses exposing employees to different viewpoints and requiring supported arguments foster critical analysis. 3M actively debates alternatives and encourages intentionally failing to refine ideas through critical thinking (Carson et al., 1994).

Complex Problem-Solving

Complex problem-solving involves the cognitive ability to understand complex systems, analyze interdependencies to identify root causes of problems, and find innovative solutions. It differs from routine problem-solving by requiring comprehension, reasoning, and judgment across multiple problem domains and variables. The World Economic Forum (2016) lists complex problem-solving as one of the top workplace skills due to emerging challenges like optimizing new technologies while mitigating unintended consequences and managing diverse stakeholder needs. Forward-thinking companies invest in building their workforce's complex problem-solving capabilities through job crafting and autonomy.

Developing Complex Problem-Solving at Spotify

At music streaming company Spotify, product design is deeply rooted in end-user research synthesizing qualitative and quantitative feedback to uncover root issues rather than surface level symptoms. Multidisciplinary teams craft holistic solutions accounting for technical constraints, business objectives, and human behaviors through iterative prototyping and experimentation. Lessons from failures expedite the problem-solving process. Spotify also cultivates a growth mindset, seeing setbacks as learning opportunities rather than personal shortcomings (Mullins, 2021). These practices strengthen complex problem-solving muscles.

Cognitive Flexibility

Cognitive flexibility involves fluidly adjusting one's thinking and strategies in response to new information, feedback, or changing priorities and constraints. It underlies capabilities like adaptability, lifelong learning, and collaboration across domains. With evolving business needs and technologies, a cognitively flexible workforce can skillfully transition between tasks, integrate diverse perspectives, and incorporate changes seamlessly into established workflows (Schulz, 2018). Neuroscience research shows cognitive flexibility increases through diversifying experiences across contexts over time, keeping the mind open to alternative solutions and new ways of thinking.

Developing Cognitive Flexibility at IDEO

Global design firm IDEO builds cognitive flexibility through their lab environment and diverse client work fueling exposure to new industries, cultures, and ways of thinking. "Brainstorming" encourages wild, impractical ideas without judgment to stretch boundaries. Design Thinkers collaborate across backgrounds tackling challenges from multiple lenses and reframing assumptions. Rotating through departments maintains fresh perspectives. Trusting relationships allow for constructive criticism to flexibly iterate improvements. Flex-time policies accommodate life's ebbs and flows. By prioritizing cognitive flexibility, IDEO employees seamlessly transition skills between projects, embrace uncertainty and change.

Social and Emotional Intelligence

Social and emotional intelligence refers to the ability to understand, use, and manage emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges, and defuse conflict (Goleman, 1995). In today's diverse, global workplaces with virtual and collaborative work becoming the norm, social and emotional intelligence is a crucial power skill enabling humans to uniquely leverage their interpersonal skills. Research finds it to be twice as important as technical skills and IQ for jobs with high requirements for guiding others, developing others, and complex interactions (Bradberry & Greaves, 2009).

Developing Social-Emotional Intelligence at Michelin

Global tire manufacturer Michelin fosters social-emotional skills through their distinctive corporate culture. 360-degree feedback and developmental coaching strengthen self-awareness and management. Diversity and inclusion training heightens cultural understanding and perspective-taking. Flat organizational structures increase transparency and trust within collaboration. Cross-functional teams necessitate compromise and emotional control. Michelin University cultivates emotional intelligence through customized curriculum helping employees understand emotions’ impact, develop others’ potential through empathy, and resolve conflicts constructively. These practices enhance workplace cohesion through social-emotional skills.

Leadership Development

Effective leadership involves the cognitive ability to envision goals and inspire others towards a shared vision or mission through influence rather than authority. It requires empowering, developing and retaining top talent through mentorship and performance management. Researchers forecast leadership to be one of the scarcest skills by 2030 as flatter, self-managed organizations replace hierarchies (World Economic Forum, 2018; Frey & Osborne, 2013). Cultivating an agile, visionary workforce ready to lead through influence requires intentional development of leadership skills at all levels.

Leadership Development at AutoDesk

3D design software company AutoDesk cultivates leadership from within through their Leading @ AutoDesk program. Employees gain exposure to different roles on rotational assignments to understand diverse perspectives. Hands-on project management experience increases leading autonomous teams. Leadership seminars provide theoretical frameworks for influencing without direct authority, overcoming resistance respectfully, motivating intrinsic drivers, and facilitating inclusive decision-making. Executive mentorships transfer institutional wisdom. Peer coaching taps emergent leaders to mentor each other informally. Ongoing feedback and development planning strengthen leadership identity and competence over time. These practices sustain a growing pipeline of servant leaders within AutoDesk.


Amid information overload, the power skill of sense-making involves being able to determine priorities, find patterns amid chaos and synthesize a broad range of information into shareable meaning and knowledge (Klein et al., 2006). It requires open-minded curiosity to learn constantly as well as the ability to clearly communicate complex ideas simply and usefully. With ambiguous, fast-paced work often relying on soft skills and tacit knowledge more than manuals and procedures, effective sense-making is key to keep workforces aligned and informed (Stiehm & Townsend, 2002).

Enabling Sense-Making through Transparency at W.L. Gore

Fabric innovator W.L. Gore operates using an open-book management system to foster sense-making capabilities across levels. Freely available business metrics, future plans and financials increase understanding of challenges faced. Two-way communication channels normalize questions and feedback loops. Investing associates’ innovation funds experiments with low risk of failure. Sense-making circles synthesize new perspectives through diverse cross-functional gatherings beyond hierarchy. Physical workspaces designed for casual collisions seed knowledge-sharing. Transparency instills trust empowering associates to connect relevant dots, comprehend connections and impart meaning to coworkers through clear communication of nuanced issues.


In today's rapidly shifting job landscape, organizations must intentionally develop "power skills" that extend beyond short-term technical expertise to prepare employees for career longevity. Critical thinking, complex problem-solving, cognitive flexibility, social-emotional intelligence, leadership and sense-making have been shown to remain in high demand across functions, sectors and over time. The case organizations highlighted in this paper demonstrate how prioritizing these power skills through tailored development strategies and a supportive culture enhances workforce capability to effectively navigate changes, continuously add value, and lead autonomously through influence. By investing in cultivating these transferable skill sets, organizations secure their future success through an agile, future-proofed workforce ready to take on an evolving world of work.


  • Bradberry, T., & Greaves, J. (2009). Emotional intelligence 2.0. TalentSmart.

  • Carson, S. J., Peterson, J. B., & Higgins, D. M. (1994). Reliability, validity, and applications of the creative problem solving profile-revised. Creativity Research Journal, 7(1), 111-123.

  • Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2013). The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerisation.

  • Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. Bantam Books.

  • Klein, G., Moon, B., & Hoffman, R. R. (2006). Making sense of sensemaking 1: Alternative perspectives. IEEE Intelligent systems, 21(4), 70-73.

  • McNulty, E.E, Zeki, R., & Van Zwieten, M.H.J. (2018). Under-explored methodologies? Post hoc reflective practices and interpretive research in HRD. European Journal of Training and Development, 42(3/4), 144-157.

  • Mullins, C. (2021, March 5). Spotify product design culture guide.

  • Schulz, E. (2018). Developing cognitive flexibility. Association for Talent Development.

  • Stiehm, J. H., & Townsend, N. W. (2002). The U.S. Army war college: Military education in a democracy. Temple University Press.

  • World Economic Forum. (2016). The future of jobs: Employment, skills and workforce strategy for the fourth industrial revolution.

  • World Economic Forum. (2018). The future of jobs report 2018.


Jonathan H. Westover, PhD is Chief Academic & Learning Officer (HCI Academy); Chair/Professor, Organizational Leadership (UVU); OD Consultant (Human Capital Innovations). Read Jonathan Westover's executive profile here.



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