In my conversations with IT architects, whether for the ArchBeat Podcast, or for my Oracle Magazine column, or just in casual gab sessions, the importance of communication and other soft skills comes up with surprising regularity. These soft skills are as essential for effective architecture as they are for the success of individual IT architects.
Two recent posts on the Harvard Business Review blog come at the idea of soft skills from different angles. Each is worthwhile reading for architects -- and anyone else -- who wants to improve communication and other social skills and the capacity for creative thinking.
In The Business Case for Reading Novels, by Anne Kreamer, discusses research from York University that offers indications that "fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness."
Some people, in some roles, might be able to get away without social skillfulness. "IT architect" is not one of those roles. Socially skillful IT architects are far more likely to be effective and successful, and far less likely to find their cars on fire in the parking lot night after night.
Creative thinking is another important soft skill for architects -- and, let's face it, for everyone else. In Don't Think Different, Think About Different Things, Art Markman suggests that the surest path to real innovation is an indirect approach. "When you need to solve a problem in a new way, you have two options," says Markman. "One is pure research and development. The other requires finding knowledge (which we already know) that offers a novel solution."
Marman suggests thinking beyond the immediate problem. In my experience, I learned long ago to take that one step further. When I'm tasked with coming up with a creative solution to a problem, the least effective strategy is to think about the problem – at all. For me, focsuing on the problem is the surest path to a complete brain freeze.
What works for me is doing something completely unrelated to the task at hand. As Markman points out, the information we need to come up with creative solutions is already in our memories. "In order to solve a problem," Markman suggests, "you need to ask your memory the right question." In my case, the right question invariably has nothing to do with the assigned task.
I'm no neuroscientist, but I figure my strategy works because of the left brain/right brain thing. While the logical, rational side of my brain is focused on some inconsequential diversionary activity (walking, maybe, or reading fiction), the creative, intuitive side of my brain is free to percolate in the background, connecting and reconnecting neural dots until the creative solution emerges. And it always does. Sitting at my desk trying to force a creative thought is a completely pointless activity.
Bottom line: Cold logic and rationality have a very definite place in IT. But it takes people to make IT work for people. Your soft skills are key to making that happen. Neglect those skills at your peril.