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Critical Thinking

I recently delivered a session on the subject of decision making and problem-solving; which is obviously a key skill in any team or organisation. It got me thinking about thinking; think about that! For some time I have had the opinion that we don’t do enough ‘critical’ thinking, so I thought I would use this week’s Weekly Tip to put that right!

Critical Thinking in Business

Critical Thinking

While I worked for BP, I was lucky enough to be sponsored to do an MBA. Part of the programme explored the subject of critical thinking and I was introduced (not literally of course) to some of the key critical thinking thinkers of the day; people like Michael Porter, Tom Peters and the like. They were all pretty good. In the same vein, a few years ago I discovered a lady called Helen Lee Bouygues.

Helen was unusual in that in a male-dominated environment she had risen to the highest levels in McKinsey, one of the biggest and probably the most famous of the world’s consultancy companies, and I would like to share her thinking on developing three habits to help improve your critical thinking. And, by the way, in this context, the word critical does not mean negative.

No, critical thinking might be described as the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. In essence, critical thinking requires you to use your ability to reason. It is about being an ‘active learner’ rather than a passive recipient of information.

Critical Thinking Definition

The Foundation for Critical Thinking defines it as:

“The intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.”

How do critical thinkers think

Critical thinkers rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They will always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and are open to finding that they do not. Critical thinkers will identify, analyse and solve problems systematically rather than by intuition or instinct.

Helen Lee Bouygues asserts that:

“Too many business leaders are simply not reasoning through pressing issues, taking the time to evaluate a topic from all sides. Leaders often jump to the first conclusion, whatever the evidence. Even worse, senior leaders will just choose the evidence that supports their prior beliefs.”

How to develop critical thinkers

The good news is that critical thinking is a skill that we can all learn and continually improve. To do that she suggests there are three simple habits that you can do to improve your critical thinking skills. They are:

  • Question your assumptions
  • Reason through the use of logic
  • Diversify your thinking

Now, you might be thinking, “I do that already.” And you probably do, but maybe just not as deliberately and thoroughly as you could. Cultivating these three key habits of mind go a long way in helping you become better at critical thinking, an increasingly desired skill in the job market.

Let’s have a look at each of them courtesy of Helen Lee Bouygues.

Question your assumptions

Of course, it’s hard to question everything. Imagine going through your day asking yourself: Is the sky really blue? What if the person next to me isn’t my colleague but her twin sister? How do I really know that the economy won’t implode tomorrow?

So, the first step in questioning your assumptions is figuring out exactly when to question your assumptions. I believe that the higher the stakes of any situation, the more important it is to challenge the assumptions that you are making.

Let’s say that you are the CEO of a major company and you’re are busy formulating the company’s 5-year strategy, upon which years of effort and expense will be based.

Now, I might be wrong here, but it seems to me that you would need to be sure to ask basic questions about your beliefs: for example, how do you know that business will increase? What does the research say about your expectations about the future of the market? Have you taken time to step into the figurative shoes of your customers as a “secret shopper”?

Get the idea?

Another way to question your assumptions is to consider alternatives. You might ask: What if our clients changed? What if our suppliers went out of business? These sorts of questions help you gain new and important perspectives that help hone your thinking.

Reason through the use of logic

Helen argues that this means “paying close attention to the ‘chain’ of logic” constructed by a particular argument. It calls for you to ask yourself questions like: Is the argument supported at every point by evidence? Do all the pieces of evidence build on each other to produce a sound conclusion?

She also suggests that being aware of common fallacies can also allow you to think more logically. For instance, people often engage in what’s known as ‘post hoc thinking’. In this fallacy, people believe that “because event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.”

So, for instance, a manager may believe that their sales agents rack up more sales in the spring because they’re fired up by the motivational speeches offered at the annual sales conference that takes place every February. Now, that might be the case but until that assumption is tested, there’s no way the manager can know if their belief is correct.

Diversify your thinking

It’s quite natural for people to group themselves together with people who think or act like them. This happens especially readily online, where it’s so easy to find a specific cultural niche. While this might be a natural phenomenon, it can narrow our perspectives further, serving up only news that supports our individual beliefs.

This is potentially a major problem because if everyone in our social circles thinks as we do, we will only become more rigid in our thinking, and less likely to change our beliefs on the basis of new information. In fact, the more people listen to people who share their views, the more polarised their thinking becomes. Just look at where we are at the moment if you don’t believe me!!

So, it’s crucial to get outside your personal bubble. Helen suggests that you can start small. If you work in accounting, make friends with people in marketing. If you always go to lunch with the senior staff, go for a drink with your junior colleagues. Training yourself this way will help you escape your usual thinking and gain richer insights.

Critical Thinking and the Dangers of Groupthink

In team settings, give people the chance to give their opinions independently without the influence of the group. This action is designed to help prevent people from engaging in groupthink.

Groupthink is a phenomenon that occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides people’s common-sense desire to present alternatives, critique a position, or express an unpopular opinion. Here, the desire for group cohesion effectively drives out good decision-making and problem-solving. It’s also very dangerous to any team or relationship as it creates dysfunctional harmony.

OK, I know that these three habits may sound easy or even obvious to you and you may say that you are doing them. In my experience, they’re rare in practice, particularly in the business world, and too many organisations don’t take the time to engage in robust forms of reasoning. But the important work of critical thinking pays off. While luck plays a role, sometimes small, sometimes large, in a company’s successes the most important business victories are actually achieved through learning to think critically.

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