Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age

Marty Neumeier teaches companies to innovate.  He shared lessons learned in his new book Metaskills: Five Talents for the Robotic Age.  Neumeier sees machines taking jobs that don’t require creativity, humanity or leadership.
“Creative abilities are critical in a time of change,” says Neumeier. “Unfortunately, traditional education has all but ruled out creativity. Instead it’s taught us to copy, memorize, obey, and keep score.”
Neumeier thinks there are five “metaskills” that will accelerate your success:

  1. FEELING: including empathy, intuition, and social intelligence.
  2. SEEING: the ability to think whole thoughts, also known as systems thinking.
  3. DREAMING: the metaskill of applied imagination.
  4. MAKING: mastering the design process, including skills for devising prototypes.
  5. LEARNING: the autodidactic ability to learn new skills at will. Learning is the “opposable thumb” of the five talents, since it can be used in combination with the other four.

I caught up with Marty last week; here’s a recap:
TVA: What do you do?
MN: I’m the Director of Transformation for Liquid Agency.  We help clients transform into more innovative companies with strong cultures.
TVA: Where do you live?
MN: California most of the year, France during the summer.
TVA: Nice. Where did metaskills come from?
MN: From personal experience in the innovation game.  I was frustrated by the lack of skills, the important stuff not taught in school.  You pick them up on your own–you learn by osmosis–with the possible exception of making which is taught in some design schools.  We need to be more deliberate about learning these things.
TVA: Your metaskills are different than the so-called non-cognitive skills correlated with academic success. 1
MN: They are soft skills, but that label has so much baggage. My mission is to bring design thinking–including aesthetics and ethics–to business.  We need people that
can imagine outcomes they’ve never seen.
TVA: How would you help a team imagine new outcomes?
MN: It’s difficult work.  Teams need tolerance for the “dragon pit” between what is, what could be. Teams usually give up quick and revert to what they know.  We frame a challenge, “here’s where we are, here’s where we want to get.”  Then there are some basic strategies–some handholds–that help teams stretch:

  • Daring to be wrong: what’s the wrong answer? That question takes you to places you’ve never been.
  • Learn to be disobedient.
  • Stand up for quality.

These are difficult exercises even for people trained to be creative.
TVA: What learning experiences should young people have?
MN: Bad things have happened since Renaissance.  Back then they learned by doing, being generative was an equal partner to learning–Leonardo was the poster boy.  Then science took it’s own path separate from art; we lost that whole artistic work ethic, work divorced from art.  We need to bring back art, theater, invention–reintroduce projects.  Kids learn by using their hands.  We can sacrifice other things–maybe a little less trigonometry–and make learning more personalized.  The reason to learn fact based stuff is so you can do things.  Kids want to make stuff.  Maybe we need to go back to a modified trade school.
TVA: How should organizations develop talent development?
MN: We can’t rely on schools, not many are good at it–a few design schools, but not many.  Organizations should invest in training, what a company stands for–brand stuff; they should teach aesthetics. Companies should train for the specific competencies the organization needs.
TVA: Does that mean traditional sit-and-get training?
MN: No, workshops, facilitated projects, collaborative work across silos.
TVA: What about market signaling? How do people show what the know?
MN: These “metaskills” should be the courses people should take–these are the subjects people should learn.  We get hung up on measuring what’s easy; it’s harder to measure soft skills.
TVA: Should these skills be part of employee performance reviews?
MN: Yes. There should be a conversation every quarter about them.  “What are you learning? How are you learning?”
See the TalentFinder quiz, a simple, ten question quiz to assess which of these talents are your strongest. In less than five minutes you’ll see your talent “handprint” — a color-coded chart showing the strength of your talents relative to one another.
TVA: The metaskills are obviously important, but it’s also important for young people to read, write and problem solve.  
MN: Right, it’s both.  I wish I had spent more time reading and writing in my early education, then added creative activities and making stuff.
My quick advice on formal education is:

  • shut down the factory,
  • flip the classroom,
  • stop talking, start making,
  • engage the learning drive,
  • stop trying to measure everything, and
  • start shaping the future.

The book is full of charts including a comparison of old school and new school.
TVA: Thanks for a thought provoking book!
(1) Teaching Adolescents To Become Learners outlines “five general categories of non-cognitive factors related to academic performance: 1) academic behaviors, 2) academic perseverance, 3) academic mindsets, 4) learning strategies, and 5) social skills.” – See Non-cognitive Skills–A Bad Name But Really Important.   
For a more traditional take on college and career readiness, see:


Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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