Critical thinking is a powerful skill that’s applicable in both daily life and running a business.
However, managers and executives are in charge of large budgets and diverse teams. Irresponsible business decisions and ignoring risk management can harm a group of people and their families, in addition to other areas of business (partners and vendors).
What Is Critical Thinking?
Thinking critically defines the process of analyzing problems from scratch, relying on a combination of your background, the context of your organization, the distribution of your team, available resources, the global market, and any data you can tap into to reach a reasonable conclusion.
A broadly accepted definition is derived from Jen Lawrence’s work on Engage the Fox: A Business Fable About Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team:
[Critical thinking is] the ability to solve problems effectively by systematically gathering information about an issue, generating further ideas involving a variety of perspectives, evaluating the information using logic, and making sure everyone involved in on board.Jen Lawrence
Simply put, traditional thinking is a “quick and dirty” approach to decision-making that doesn’t account for the complete context to analyze a problem.
Busy executives need to resort to proven approaches and established processes most of the time. But without critical thinking strategies, important initiatives can fail miserably and jeopardize the entire business.
So what flavors exist between both extremes of the thinking curve?
6 Stages of Critical Thinking Development
A theory essay led by Linda Elder and Richard Paul defines six stages critical thinking morphs into:
- The Unreflective Thinker
- The Challenged Thinker
- The Beginning Thinker
- The Practicing Thinker
- The Advanced Thinker
- The Master Thinker
While critical thinking exercises start as early as K-12 schools (or even private kindergartens), the concept gets imprinted as an informal medium for solving day-to-day problems.
And the difference between unaware thinkers and proficient ones determines whether you’re running your life on autopilot or excel at balancing experience with context and different variables introduced for every problem.
Over time, students can lose their aptitude, relying on former experiences and known patterns instead of questioning paradigms and challenging themselves toward progress.
In business development, the landscape evolves quickly.
- New hires alter the company culture
- New departments obtain and share responsibilities throughout the organization
- New product divisions share costs and expenses with other, revenue-generating activities
- Promotions change the dynamics of ownership and hierarchy across the team
- Competitors pivot and acquire market share, leading to internal changes in services and products to match the market dynamics and customer expectations
The main responsibility of managers and executives is quickly identifying larger initiatives dependent on numerous factors and allocating the time to derive a decision without omitting essential details.
Required Skills For Critical Thinking
SkillsYouNeed defines 9 skills we need for critical thinking:
- Problem solving
- Decision making
Similarly to risk management, business leaders have to follow these processes below:
- Gather requirements from different mediums and data sources
- Critically assess the issue at hand
- Consider all arguments and stakeholders involved in the process
- List down assumptions and opinions
- Evaluate every opinion critically
- Perform a simple SWOT analysis to identify weak spots or flaws
- Account for all implications or unwanted side effects upon making a decision
- Provide a well-thought argument supporting the preferred solution
Leaving your temperament at the door is crucial to perform a successful critical thinking analysis. Prejudice can impact the evaluation process. It’s best to allocate some time to objectively go through the process whenever possible.
A Simple Framework
Wabisabi crafted a helpful cheatsheet you can use during your first critical thinking exercises:
Before the analysis process, walk through a comprehensive list of questions to gather enough information yourself. For instance:
- Who benefits from this change?
- Who is most directly affected by the outcome?
- What strengths/weaknesses would impact the result?
- What would be a counter-argument against the change?
- Where can we find similar applications to what we try to adopt?
- Where will the new idea take us?
- When would this cause a pressing problem?
- When can we confirm the experiment has succeeded?
- Why is this a pressing business problem worth solving?
- Why have we relied on our existing process to date?
- How will we approach that safely?
- How does the new change benefit the product/team/organization?
This critical thinking framework is applicable in all forms of decision-making – especially when the stakes are high.
When to Apply Critical Thinking in Business
Once you adopt an effective framework, switching between a quick burst of simple decisions and applying critical thinking will become a healthy habit.
However, there are plenty of cases when you need to default to a more robust framework to avoid an expensive risk afterward:
1. Launching a New Product
Business planning and designing a product MVP undergoes an extensive process. If you rely on leap of faith or your intuition before investing 6-12 months in validation and development and six figures (or more), this is effectively the definition of gamble.
Break the process down into multiple steps and critically assess the market dynamics, common objections, legal obstacles, user experience, and your target market.
2. Promoting a Staff Member
Handing a manager/lead role seems natural at first for your loyal employees. But it’s worth asking a number of questions before proceeding further:
- Are they actually looking forward to a management role?
- Are they coachable?
- Is the business ready to lose a key talent in a role only to promote to a lead one?
- Is this career path the most suitable one?
- Does the new role pose limitations that would harm your employee?
- How qualified is your team member to take on future challenges a year or two ahead?
3. Moving to a New Office Space
Switching office spaces is usually dictated by negotiation challenges (increased costs), environmental changes (construction work or other renters who distract your staff) or outgrowing the space.
However, moving to a new space can pose unexpected challenges for you and your team members – both short-term and long-term.
We spent 10 months before our last transition to a new office. Some of the key considerations that we had to evaluate were:
- Is there a nearby subway station?
- What about parking?
- What are the available coffee shops and restaurants in the area?
- What does traffic look like during peak hours?
- Is the location safe enough in the evening?
- Can the new space accommodate a 100% growth in the next 3 years?
- Would the transport system negatively affect staff members who didn’t have problems prior to that?
- How much freedom to change and restructure are we allowed now?
After a long evaluation process, we found a safe neighborhood near a large shopping center with food nearby, a subway station, plenty of parking spots, located just above a small supermarket. The building manager preliminary reserved another floor and we’re slowly expanding as capacity maxes out over time.
4. Opening a New International Branch
If you’re based in the US and you find an untapped market in Spain, Norway, Nigeria or Pakistan, you’re probably thinking about a new office space that follows the exact same workflow.
It takes an extensive set of critical thinking sessions to arrive at the right conclusion.
The language barrier may be an obstacle in Spain, France or Germany, along with the legal framework of the European Union.
Norway, however, is not a part of the EU. Different rules apply there, along with taxing. Due to its social policy, you may look into new ways to treat parents differently from what you’re used to in the States.
Finding key executive roles in Nigeria or Pakistan could be challenging. While lots of multinational corporations have offices there, the talent pool is smaller and a niche business may take a while to get up to speed (unless your strategic managers relocate there for the first six months).
Again, most of this is based on generalizations that may or may not apply to different businesses. Targeting non-US markets can be a successful venture. But you need to spend some time with local consulting firms to study the market dynamics and the local standards.
Other Leadership Applications of Critical Thinking
Aside from traditional business cases like bootstrapping products, acquiring companies, opening new branches or deploying technology, business leaders can maximize the benefits of critical thinking in other management scenarios.
- Presentation strategies. Gauging your public speaking skills through the lenses of critical thinking can tap into new caveats your staff or vendors would omit otherwise. Start with the outcome and reverse-engineer the process instead. Build your outline accordingly and stress on the main aspects of your pitch, making sure you hit home with the last slide.
- Workplace conflicts. Even if you notice tension at the workplace, getting to the root of the problem isn’t always obvious. Diversity issues could get in the way. Different temperaments in the same room may not fit in all too well. Standards arguments around the lighting or the room temperature can escalate quickly. Dive deep and you’ll manage the conflict before it’s too late.
- Text communication. Reading between the lines is as subjective as it gets. But an ambiguous text from a client could escalate a problem early on. Text etiquette isn’t widely distributed – and even subtle details like ending your message with a period can completely change the tone.
- Communicating live. If your staff gets intimidated every time you get in the room, there may be a misalignment between your leadership style and the culture you need to instill. For instance, my team notified me that asking anyone “got a minute to chat?” was the worst thing they could hear, always imagining they are about to be fired. Once I heard that over drinks after hours, I completely changed the narrative and have always provided since then sufficient context if I need five minutes to sync.
- A bonus system. If you plan to start a bonus system for overachievers, money is often the first conclusion leaders reach. But is this the best perk your team expects? Probably shorter business hours or extra days off would make a difference. Or a paid trip for your staff member and their significant other. Maybe even recognition in a company announcement or sponsoring a charity they care about. Discuss this with HR and you may be surprised at the end.
- Giving feedback. Receiving and giving feedback are among the most challenging management skills a leader should nurture over the years. Taking the subject likely can escalate in a number of ways. Apply critical thinking both before giving and when receiving feedback. As a giver, don’t push the wrong buttons. As a receiver, read between the lines and always respect and praise an honest opinion.
- Imprinting an idea. Convincing a team to work towards the same goal requires a careful approach. Team members bounce different ideas back and forth and hurting feelings is easier than not. Build your pitch around core goals and values everyone would agree to, and design your value map and your hiring process around this paradigm.
Critical thinking can be a powerful shift for you personally and as a business leader in your organization.
Once you get used to the model and apply the established frameworks for success, you will develop a healthier workplace environment, a strong and loyal team, and a sustainable business model with risk management in mind.