Pursuing soft skills

Traditionally, society has understandably placed a significant emphasis on hard skills. Hard skills can be measured and quantified, they're easily taught in a structured classroom or training program, they were critical for economic growth and a successful labor force.

To this day when we fabricate our resumes it's to add relevant hard skills, few producers will focus on exaggerating their excellent negotiation skills during an interview, instead focusing on highlighting a background that gave them a set of hard skills to fall back on.

But recently there's been a growing recognition of just how important soft skills are for anyone required to work efficiently with others. The shift towards automation and the knowledge economy is putting a premium on creativity, innovation and strategy in addition to execution.

In an increasingly complex and changing world, the ability to think critically and adapt to new situations is more important than ever and people who possess a combination of hard and soft skills will be better positioned to succeed.

Soft skills

Soft skills are less tangible, they're difficult to measure or teach and they're much more correlated to our personalities - but they're critical to our roles. Leaders of any sort in the creative industries are operating in domains that rely heavily on soft skills.

Let's look at the requisite skills for a producer role :

  • leadership - and therefore the ability to prioritise, to adapt, to push towards solutions
  • teamwork - I'd add humility, humour and patience as fundamentals for successful teamwork.
  • communication - how valuable are hard skills if creatives are unable to communicate and collaborate with the rest of the team?
  • sales and negotiation
  • strategy - the most important soft skill in a producer's arsenal and the subject of the next issue.

As a producer our role is almost entirely made up of soft skills, with an important foundation of hard skills in the chosen field.

Which is why I find it impossible to hire a producer based on a portfolio or a resume, their success isn’t as easily quantifiable. The best way to determine a producer's past success is through a referral from previous employers.

Beyond the learnable soft skills, we have an even more valuable and powerful knowledge accumulation system at our disposal - tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge

The concept of tacit knowledge is crucial to understanding why being curious on the field is imperative to acquiring important skills in your career.

Tacit knowledge is contextual information that cannot be easily captured or taught through words alone, and instead must be acquired through direct experience, observation, and osmosis.

Deliberate practice on the other hand, is composed of the soft and hard skills that can be learned through well-established pedagogy and is most effective in domains with a longer history of teaching.

Source: CommonCog's essay on Tacit Knowledge

How do we pursue knowledge in creative production where there are often no established educational techniques? Theoretically it might be possible to distill expert decision-making into a multi-branched process or set up an extensive checklist, but in practice I don't see how - projects and teams vary too widely. If you're reading this in the interest of improving as a producer, my opinion is that it is most effective to actively pursue tacit knowledge in the field.

The process of learning tacit knowledge often involves finding a master in the field and working with them for a few years, learning the ropes through emulation, feedback, and osmosis, rather than through deliberate practice.

The field of naturalistic decision-making (NDM) is focused on ways to make this process more effective, but for now the simplest methods to acquire tacit knowledge in our profession are the following :

  • get experience on a vast array of projects
  • ask for feedback regularly
  • be curious about the disciplines involved in your projects, ask questions and experiment
  • when a senior makes a decision you trust but don't fully understand, ask why they are making this decisions
  • get mentoring (referring to Art of Production)

The nutshell

In a nutshell, if you're aspiring to become a better producer I would suggest starting by acquiring a few hard skills in an area you're passionate about. As you continue to grow in your domain, learn from everyone and everything to accumulate tacit knowledge.

While hard skills are undeniably valuable, don't let that expectation continue to dictate your resume and educational focus. Ultimately it's the ability to work well with others, communicate clearly, and inspire a team that will drive successful projects. Leverage the hard skills and confidence to lead smaller teams, dedicate time to developing interpersonal skills that will help you become a well-rounded leader (and person).

And as we’ll see in the next issue, learn to be strategic.