Why Critical Thinking is Critical

‘Training for Success’with Bill Russell

Bill Russell has worked with clients globally from a variety of industries including defense, telecom, banking, manufacturing, automotive, aviation, medical equipment, healthcare, and universities. Through the use of workshops, presentations, and interventions, he strives for quick, collaborative implementations that prioritize actions that yield the fastest and largest payback and encourage multiple cycles of learning. In other words, Bill believes in training for success. In this column, Bill offers words of advice on how to get the most out of your training sessions. A firm believer in the power of reading and continuing education, Bill also offers a recommended read at the conclusion of every piece.

Critical Thinking
Recently, I was meeting with a new executive team on developing strategies for driving business growth. They were discussing how to shorten the decision making cycle. “In the past few years, the economic conditions have changed,” the president explained, “Business cycles have shortened, customer expectations have increased, and profit pressures are at an all-time high. We need to be better informed and have a more accurate estimate of the real risks – but in a fraction of the time.”

As they discussed some recent proposal reviews, a pattern emerged. An extensive set of data bases are analyzed, many templates are created, and large presentations created. “Teams bring us the package, filled out correctly and the numbers all add up, but they ultimately can’t tell us a coherent story. It’s like we are seeing the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that aren’t quite assembled.”

He turned to me and asked if I had any recommendations. I glanced around the room and saw they were all looking at me. Uh-oh. Now what? Up to this point, I had been delivering my prepared talk, but now we were wandering off-script in a high-stakes moment. Two things occurred to me. The next few words might well shorten my career. Also, they really did want to hear what I thought.

As I continued to scan the room, I realized I did have a suggestion. There was a solution. It wasn’t easy, but it was effective. So I took a deep breath and introduced a three-step process to achieving their goals of quicker and better decisions.

Step 1 – Deploy the Critical Thinking Process
Many of the university curricula today include ample material on new tools and technologies. But little time is spent on a crucial subject, how to think carefully about the data is a skill set we must develop.

Fortunately, there is a critical thinking approach and set of tools optimized for the business environment, and the first step is to deploy it to the right folks in the organization. It is effective in both big and small decisions.

Step 2 – Establish an Open and Collaborative Environment
This approach and these tools prosper best in an environment of inclusiveness where all team members have a voice and feels free to share their ideas and insights. It withers and dies in an environment where people must filter what they say to comply with the party line. Free debate and discussion will allow the best ideas to survive and most creative approaches to be discovered.

Step 3 Ask the Right Questions
Often, developing the most effective tools for ensuring the right actions are taken requires that leaders ask the right questions. What is the problem definition? What were the assumptions? What are all the alternatives? Was there a pro-con/fix analysis performed on them?

In my next two blogs, we will explore the elements of the Critical Thinking approach and how to get started.

Recommended Reading: Asking the Right Questions
Used in a variety of courses in various disciplines, Asking the Right Questions helps bridge the gap between simply memorizing or blindly accepting information, and the greater challenge of critical analysis and synthesis.  Specifically, this concise text teaches how to think critically by exploring the components of arguments–issues, conclusions, reasons, evidence, assumptions, and language – including how to spot fallacies, manipulations, and obstacles to critical thinking.