Critical thinking is a “complex process of deliberation, which involves a wide range of skills and attitudes”. I first became aware of critical thinking as a practice many years ago as an undergraduate at university, when producing assignments for assessment.
It developed, what has become for me, a life-long habit of questioning: who is telling me what, why, and what are they not telling me?
As well as constantly asking questions, I learned that critical thinking involves checking for bias. One of the few books I remember from university days is Darrell Huff’s How to Lie With Statistics, which I thoroughly recommend.
So what else is it?
I have always worked at post-graduate level with senior executives, never with undergraduates. As a matter of priority and up-front, I spell out the assessment criteria and critical thinking abilities that people will be expected to develop and demonstrate, including how they will be expected to meet the assessment criteria.
Critical thinking at post-graduate level is about engaging with complexities, dynamic interactions and uncertainty. It is above all about constant challenge and awareness of alternatives. In more detail, critical thinking is:
a systematic approach to scoping and identifying the interacting elements of a strategic problem
assessing risks in the process
challenging assumptions (our own and those of other people)
evaluating strategic options from among alternatives
identifying and defending selection criteria
reflecting on effects of paradoxes, constraints and incomplete knowledge
using evidence to draw valid and justifiable conclusions in making a case for action.
The content the executives were learning about was always a means to an end in my view. The whole reason for undertaking a postgraduate programme of learning is to develop higher-level thinking skills, and to learn to work within communities of practice with peers at the forefront of complex knowledge.
A skill for work and life?
The ability to think critically is obviously vital in being informed about all manner of things that affect our lives, from what news media and advertisers want us to believe to what politicians tell us. What is the truth? Where are the hidden agendas? Are we being manipulated?
Critical thinking is a fundamental set of skills that ought to have been learned for anyone who has been to university. Why then, when so many people are university-educated, does critical thinking and challenge appear to be in short supply within so many organisations?
The on-going global financial crisis provides a fertile source of historic evidence to show that social and cognitive barriers to critical thinking and acting are deeply embedded within our own individual tendency to avoid conflict, in slow-to-change social habits, and in rigid organisational structures.
Cognitive bias is a problem. Our biases (that we are often unaware of) and the assumptions we make based on those biases, influence the conclusions we arrive at and decisions we make.
Another individual barrier is the tendency to make decisions that are driven by emotions or ideology, which can then be rationally post-justified.
Barriers from group dynamics
Group dynamics can lead to groupthink, when it becomes difficult to oppose a dominant view or to challenge the status quo. Challenging those in power is not for the feint hearted. For those who do have the courage to go against the grain and speak out, they run the risk of public denunciation.
Gillian Tett of the Financial Times is reported to have said that at the 2007 economic form at Davos:
“One of the most powerful people in the US government at the time stood up on the podium and waved my article, the article that predicted the problems at Northern Rock, as an example of scaremongering”
Silo structures and mental models
The combination of rigid mental models and organisational structures present deep-rooted and system-wide barriers to critical thinking. They constrain perspectives within silos, rather than across an organisation or eco-system of organisations.
Gillian Tett spoke about the effect of silo thinking in the Guardian article referenced earlier. Financial analysts concentrating on their own expertise were unable to see the bigger picture. For me though, it is the example of the failure of the CIA and the defence community in the period leading up to the 9/11 atrocity that is the most eye-watering.
John Farmer was senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission. In his view, old attitudes and ways of operating from the Cold War era prevailed within the intelligence agencies, particularly the CIA, the FBI and the Department of Defence. Unwillingness and inability to share information within and across agencies were systemic failures and outcomes of systems that were “flawed by design”. Farmer says:
“The boundaries between and within departments separated knowledge gained domestically from knowledge gained overseas; knowledge gained through human intelligence from knowledge gained electronically; and knowledge gained through the investigation of criminal conduct from knowledge gained for the purposes of situational awareness as general intelligence … each boundary amounted to a fault line, an opportunity for the system to fail.”
He also reviews subsequent failed responses to Katrina in 2005 and, in an afterword to the second edition of the book, the attempted bombing of an aircraft out of Schipol Airport in Amsterdam bound for Detroit on Christmas Day, 2009. Of Katrina he says:
“The bureaucratic unwillingness or inability to cooperate across departments crippled efforts to anticipate and respond to Katrina no less than it had crippled efforts to interdict and then respond to 9/11, preempting the possibility of a unified chain of command.”
If this unwillingness to co-operate and inability to change mindsets from a previous, outdated bureaucratic era can arise in the defence of a nation and a city, it can certainly happen in the pursuit of profit.
Daring to disagree
It is against this backdrop that Margaret Heffernan describes ‘wilful blindness’ in this TED talk, Dare to Disagree, which is where people choose not to see or know. Confronting blindness means developing skills of challenge and disagreement but, she says, doing this goes against a neuro-biological drive that compels us to seek out people like ourselves. She also says that most people are instinctively afraid of conflict. She concludes that we need to develop the skills, habit and moral courage to engage in challenge and overcome our fear of conflict.
Practice makes possible
Like any skill, developing critical thinking and acting skills takes considerable and deliberate practice. Challenging the status quo is never easy but it can and must be done. I know it can be done because I have worked with remarkable people who have challenged the status quo to transform the performance cultures in their workplaces.
One of my objectives for the still-in-early-alpha Smart Work Company open-learn community is a place where critical thinking skills will emerge in a safe place through experimenting, reflecting, sharing and talking together. We will practice disagreeing with each other – without of course being disagreeable! That is going to be a trick to pull off.
The examples given here are all on a large scale, with far-reaching consequences but we all face similar challenges in thinking critically and acting appropriately when making decisions within increasingly complex business contexts. Margaret Heffernan talks about gaining moral courage from allies. I am hoping that supportive relationships develop within the open-learn community, encouraging those who need it to seek out help from allies within their own workplaces.