At the end of a meeting, a manager says: “We don’t need to ask our customers permission to use their data –  they don’t care!”.  He then follows it up with “Just get on with it, will you!

How would you unpick this?  What risks are there to the business in taking such a decision? Would your decision today have been different 5 years ago?   Welcome to the complex world of critical thinking!

For our purpose we will use Edward Glaser’s definition: “Critical thinking is the objective analysis of facts to form a judgment”.  It’s worth reading his definition again: it suggests that there is more than one skill needed to be a good critical thinker.  In this overview we will identify the skills needed to become a better critical thinker.

First, the good news: this is not some newfangled business idea!  The earliest documentation of critical thinking was probably Socrates; you may know him from Monty Python’s Philosophers Song (the only Philosopher mentioned twice in the song), or more properly perhaps at school as the founder of philosophy.   Socrates established the idea that people cannot depend upon those in high places to be the best decision makers. He recognised the importance of asking penetrating questions that would unpick decisions to understand their accuracy before they should be accepted.

So, if we accept that almost three millennia ago, Socrates may have seen a leader make some weird decisions, then it might strike you as odd that this is not a core skill in general business management; whereas in such disciplines as engineering, software development and accounting, it’s highly prized.

Perhaps the challenge is that it’s not just one skill.  To be good at critical thinking we probably need to master six core skills and then apply them to “disciplined thinking that is clear, rational, open-minded, and informed by evidence”.

• Reasoning – in its simplest form, this is the ability to make sense of things, and it can be very structured and formal (e.g. mathematics and engineering) or it can be informal and based on culture or history.  A simple test might be to explain with ease an outcome or situation in your business.

• Evaluation –  the understanding of a subject’s merit, worth and significance, using criteria governed by a set of standards. Accountants and engineers understand this skill well: they are able to make clear and unambiguous statements about value or strength based on comparative measurement standards.  An example might be “This bridge will support a car but nothing larger than a 3-ton lorry”.

• Problem Solving – this can be an individual or team skill. Essentially problem-solving consists of using generic or ad hoc methods, in an orderly manner, to find solutions to problems.  Increasingly problem-solving can be supported by computers.  They can also reduce the skill required to master a problem, like auto-pilots on aircraft or navigation apps on our phones.  But then, this assistance can also blunt our own problem solving skills.

• Decision Making – again, this can be an individual or group skill, (we have looked at how informed we may be in our decision making here.  It can be regarded as a problem-solving activity that ends with the adoption of a particular outcome or solution.  Well supported leaders are often presented with a number of options from which they can select a way forward, or discount based on the evidence presented.

• Analysis –  a process of inspecting, cleansing, transforming, and modeling information with the aim of discovering useful insight, informing conclusions, and supporting decision making. A brilliant exponent of this was Hans Rosling and his Gap Minder website.  He said here (before his recent death) that “Almost nobody knows the basic global facts!” and then used simple tests and information to analyse why that is the case. Analysis gives us a well-informed worldview.

• Communicating – the act of sharing meaning with an individual or group to another through the use of mutually understood signs and language.  It’s important to note the shared and mutual nature of communication. Businesses soon grow their own vocabularies – usually with good reason. It’s how we get work done. Good communication insulates against bad decisions. But thoughtless and jargon-filled communication enforces the “this is how we do things round here” stereotype.

Sometimes, critical thinking is most easily described by its absence. So, back to that manager’s assertion: “we don’t need to ask our customers permission to use their data, they don’t care!”  and the follow-up, “just get on with it, will you!”  A little analysis, reasoning and evaluation soon shows the cracks. What is the reason for this action? Where is the analysis to support the customer statement? What is the problem it’s trying to solve? Is this the only option? Perhaps most importantly, what is the “it” we now need to get on with?  Socrates would turn in his grave!

You may have spotted some of these skills being put to good use in your own organisation. But are they all tested? In their book, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, 2008, Paul and Elder define a well-cultivated critical thinker as someone who:

• raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;

• gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;

• thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as need be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences;

• communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.

Few of us use these techniques all the time. And few of us consciously cultivate these skills, either – partly because they are seen as “soft” skills, rather than the knowledge-based skills we pick up in the education system. It’s no surprise that it takes Cognisco-style tools to assess whether an employee even has these skills; because there’s no certificate for competence in critical thinking! There should be – it’s recognised for keeping planes in the air and lawyers in business; and it can be deployed in every workplace. Asking questions is always a good skill to encourage.

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