One of the most important roles a leader of any organization must play is to synthesize information together to make sound decisions. This is not process that exists in a bubble. In order to make decisions which positively impact your organization, you have to sort through a seemingly endless array of information and decide what information to utilize and what information to ignore. Your ability to think critically about information, problems, issues and opportunities lies at the heart of your ability to lead.
Of all the definitions of critical thinking, perhaps the most explanatory one is provided by The Critical Thinking Company. They say critical thinking is “the identification and evaluation of evidence to guide decision making. A critical thinker uses broad in-depth analysis of evidence to make decisions and communicate his/her beliefs clearly and accurately”. Simply put, critical thinkers use a process to question information to check for accuracy, identify biases, and understand the context of the information before utilizing the information as fact.
Why should you desire to become a critical thinker?
- It will help you make better decisions. You will discover the biases and falsehoods in information prior to making a decision.
- You will find more alternatives. Part of critical thinking involves finding where ideas are interrelated and in exploring other possibilities.
- You will see through conflict more effectively. Understanding the context and biases of information will help you quickly get to the root causes of issues.
- You’ll be able to delineate between opinions and facts more effectively. Just because a statement is made in the tone of a fact, does not necessarily mean that it is not an opinion masquerading as a fact.
- You’ll become better at looking for exceptions and creating analogies. Finding what is missing from the information is as important as understanding what is included.
- You’ll have a process to choose the best option, not just the least bad option. Critical thinking is about discovery and pushing through until you get where you need to go, not just to where it is convenient to end up.
This process begins with the ability to actively listen to what is being said. You can’t ask the right questions if you don’t fully hear what is being said. Active listening requires leaders to focus on both the message, the medium, the tone and inflection, body language and to hear what is missing from the message as well as what is included. The listener must be able to ask probing questions to ensure understanding. Once the message is clearly heard, then the leader can begin transforming the information by utilizing a process of critical thinking.
Once you have heard the information, you will have to develop a habit of curiosity. Asking why, providing contrarian opinions, looking at the other side of an argument are the hallmarks of an effective critical thinker. The most effective thinkers don’t just ask why one time and accept the answer as fact; they persist until they have drilled down to the very root of the issue. Asking why will challenge the assumptions of your team and of your own biases to sort out fact from opinion.
If you have not already defined your own process of how to think, consider starting with Vincent Ruggiero’s W.I.S.E. Model of Critical Thinking. This model is an easy to understand, easy to implement and easy to manipulate model to begin your journey on thinking more effectively.
- Wonder – reflect on experiences and observations and identify challenges that are worth addressing. Your experiences can be ones of failure, frustration, embarrassment, controversy or even just curiosity.
- Investigate – gather information about the challenges identified by wondering. If you are working on a problem, aim to understand how the process in question works, how the implementation is designed, why people are dissatisfied with the situation or why previous attempts to solve the problem failed. Conversely, if you are working on solving an issue, look to acquire the evidence necessary for you to form a judgment and identify the conflicting arguments about the issue.
- Speculate – identify possible solutions to problems and possible resolutions of issues. For problems, begin by asking “how can …” questions to open a different avenue of thought. Use brainstorming exercises with your team to look for divergent ideas. For issues, speculate possible resolution of the controversy then turn all the conflicting assertions and conclusions into questions using words such as “is”, “does”, “could”, “would”, “should”. The best option may not simply be the most familiar options.
- Evaluate – test possible solutions to problems or the various arguments about issues and deciding which one(s) are most worthy. When focused on a problem, review possible solutions to your “how can …” exercise and decide the best solution, then test the possible solutions for comprehensiveness, longevity, practicality, safety, efficiency, economy, compatibility, appearance, morale, and legality. If you are focused on an issue, the goal is to find the most defensible point of view, which may be exactly what someone already expressed or it could be a different view completely.
Kathryn Schulz, the author of the bestselling book Being Wrong, said during a TED talk last year “the wondrous thing about the human mind isn’t that we can see things as they are, but that we can see things as they aren’t”. Thinking more effectively will open your mind up to possibilities once hidden from your view. Your journey to becoming a critical thinker will be challenging. But the improvement in the quality of your thinking will far outweigh your pain.