Critical thinking is that mode of thinking about any subject, content, or problem in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them.
It is is the ability to think clearly and rationally, understanding the logical connection between ideas. Critical thinking has been the subject of much debate and thought since the time of early Greek philosophers such as Plato and Socrates and has continued to be a subject of discussion into the modern age, for example the ability to recognise fake news.
Someone with critical thinking skills can:
- Understand the links between ideas.
- Determine the importance and relevance of arguments and ideas.
- Recognise, build and appraise arguments.
- Identify inconsistencies and errors in reasoning.
- Approach problems in a consistent and systematic way.
- Reflect on the justification of their own assumptions, beliefs and values.
As you begin your critical thinking efforts I’d like you to think about causes and consequences. One of the biggest challenges I’m facing with any problem solving is that desire to rush off and get to an answer quickly, but think about it,
Have you ever solved a symptom only to find out there are other symptoms that arise after you solve it?
Have you ever put in place a recommendation only to find out you created new problems down the road?
When you’re going through this critical thinking process, first consider causes. Look at the symptom that is problematic, then figure out the real reason it’s happening and come at that possible symptom from multiple perspectives. Once you generate a recommendation, stop and think critically.
What new problems can you create if you implement this recommendation?
What are the new symptoms that will be caused? Think that through before you implement your recommendation.
Let’s illustrate a client situation where the organization was going to roll out a brand new website that would be facing their customers. The problem was they continue to miss deadlines for rolling the website out and going live. Now let’s look at causes and consequences.
What was the cause of the website not rolling out? Well, the code wasn’t ready. Yeah, but that’s a symptom, that’s a symptom of a problem.
Why wasn’t the code ready? Well, the specifications weren’t done. Okay, well that’s also a symptom. Why weren’t the specs done? Well because they didn’t agree on the features and functionality of the new website.
But let’s not stop there.
Why was that symptom happening?
Well, they weren’t given clarity by leadership around one aspect that was a major strategic decision in terms of how they would roll the website out.
That was the cause of all these issues and why the rollout wasn’t happening. Now let’s think through once that strategic decision is made what are the consequences of it? So leadership finally decided to make the website a closed network. Therefore, new customers would have to call in to register instead of registering on the website. That’s then going to flood the call center with incremental calls. The consequence of that is the staff in the call center is going to be overworked. And then a consequence of that is current customers are going to experience service issues, they won’t get their calls answered as quickly, and then a consequence of that is you might lose current customers.
When you go out to solve a problem think backwards about the causes, think forward about the consequences. Look at the causes, spend some time thinking about what’s really causing this issue. Continue to work backward until it’s clear you’re solving a problem and not a symptom.
Then once you’ve generated a recommendation, think through the consequences. What are the new problems that could emerge if you implement your recommendation? Think about a problem that you made a recommendation on where it didn’t go so well.
Which of these two did you miss?
Did you miss the real root cause?
Did you miss possible consequences of your recommendation? By spending this extra time thinking about these aspects and putting in the critical thought, there’s a much higher likelihood that whatever recommendation you come up with is going to solve the true problem, and you’re going to account for some of the possible consequences down the road.
One of the first steps in any good critical thinking process is taking a very big problem and breaking it down into smaller ones that you can actually solve. The time you invest thinking through what the components of the problem are is going to pay dividends on the backend when you look at the possible solutions, because you’ll have a better sense for what recommendations and solutions to pursue and how those solutions help you solve the bigger problem.
When I take big problems and I spend the time to think about breaking them into smaller and smaller ones, those smaller problems are much easier to solve. What I’d encourage you to do is take a big problem you’re currently facing.
Go find a whiteboard somewhere and ask yourself, “What’s that big problem composed of? What are the smaller issues that are driving the big problem?”
Once you have those smaller issues, break them down again, and continue breaking those big problems down into smaller and smaller ones until you say, “Oh, I know how I might solve that component of it.”
When you can start seeing the solutions emerge, you’re moving from that problem identification stage to a problem solving stage. And the time you invest in dimensionalizing this problem solving space is going to help you solve problems more quickly and more effectively.
Another element of the critical thinking that goes into defining your problem is considering past efforts. We shouldn’t reinvent the wheel. Ask yourself,
Has this problem been considered in the past?
What did you learn?
What’s different now versus the last time we looked at it?
Were there challenges or issues last time this was addressed that we need to think about as we try to solve it this time around?
What are the ingoing assumptions that are limiting our thinking?
Who was involved in the problem solving last time?
By learning from experience, it’s going to prevent you from wasted effort. You can identify and avoid prior pitfalls and you can also involve some of the veterans to help push your thinking.
Another set of critical thinking tools for defining your problem is looking at the problem through new lenses.
Can you change the point of view?
Can you change context?
Can you change reality?
Let’s look at what those mean. Changing point of view. How is the problem defined from the perspective of the CEO, of the frontline staff, of customers, of adjacent groups? They’re all going to look at the problem in different ways, and they’ll define it differently depending upon their point of view. The problem will look very different from 10,000 feet versus 50 feet. In terms of changing context, can you reimagine the problem in new ways?
We tend to come at the problem from our own functional perspective. If you work in finance, well, it’s going to be a finance problem. If somebody works in IT, they’ll look at the same thing and say, “No, it’s an IT problem.”
So, can you change the context in terms of how you’re defining the problem? And can you change reality? Ask yourself,
“What if? What if I removed some of these constraints? What if I had some of these resources? What if I was able to do this instead of that?”
By changing reality, you may find a different way to define the problem that enables you to pursue different opportunities. By looking at the problem in new ways, you’re going to get a clear sense of direction around what the real issue is, such that you can generate some innovative and insightful solutions.
The final thing you should think about as you’re trying to define your problem is causality. I’ve mentioned thinking about causes and consequences, that applies to thinking through how you’re going to define the problem in the first place. You should understand, are some elements of the problem you’re trying to solve derived from other problems or other related elements?
How does this problem tie to other issues in your organization?
What’s the real root cause of the problem?
Remember, we don’t want to solve symptoms, this is about solving the right problem the first time around.
Does solving this really means solving that much deeper or proceeding problem? The more you can get to the root, the more effective you’re going to be in preventing future problems in the organization. Once you’ve solved it and you come up with that recommendation, think forward about these consequences.
If you make this change, how will everybody else behave?
Are you really clear about chronology and what causes what causes what?
Laying out that path that says, if I do this, then this might happen, then this might happen is going to help you predict some of the outcomes that you could face. And if those might be bad outcomes, it can impact the type of recommendation you make in the first place to be able to avoid those issues down the road. Understanding those causes, and then the effects of your recommendation is going to help you solve the real problem and avoid unintended consequences.
During your critical thinking processes, there are several pitfalls you might fall into, but you can avoid them. The most common pitfall is jumping to answers too quickly. You think you know what the problem is and you rush off to solve it. Some of the tools you can use to avoid that pitfall are first, defining your problem well, having that clear problem statement. And then you can ask and answer focusing questions, evaluate prior efforts, look at the problem through new lenses, and understand causality. By looking at all of those, it will prevent you from jumping ahead to answers before you’ve really understood what the problem is. The second pitfall is being unwilling to expand the problem space. Why would I want to make the problem any worse than it is? Here’s the problem, I can solve this. But that might be a symptom. You need to think through what’s really causing that issue.