Critical Thinking 101

The phrase "critical thinking skills" is often heard in business circles or seen listed in job requirements and MBA program descriptions. However, it's not always clear what it actually means. True critical thinking involves an intervention in one's own thought process in order to efficiently solve a problem. Unfortunately the administrative demands on today's educators don't leave much time to teach this process; as a result, there are an enormous amount of people in our workforce who lack this understanding.

Whenever any of us approach a problem, we bring biases to the table, often unintentionally. Prior experiences, cultural influences, assumptions about knowledge on the subject, or public opinion all play into our thought process, whether we're aware of it or not. The challenge in critical thinking lies in first becoming aware of those biases, and then in stepping outside of them to clearly reason your way through a problem. Successful critical thinkers make better business decisions because the process allows them to gather more information, collaborate with others and evaluate a business decision with objectivity.

For example, a new solution to an old problem may be expressed during a workplace meeting. People who are naturally resistant to change may not exercise critical thinking skills, and instead respond that "We've always done it that way, why change it now?" Instead of shooting down a new idea without giving it any thought, the application of critical thinking could result in a more effective way of doing business. Perhaps the marketplace has changed, or new data has been made available that suggests a different direction. Successful companies are ones that take a process apart, examine its components carefully, and gather relevant information. This collaborative process encourages creative thinking and oftentimes results in very effective problem-solving.

There are several schools of thought that detail core steps in the critical thinking process. Each of them leads to intellectual analysis of the information at hand, identifies areas that require more research, and finally indicates a course of action that best solves the problem. Successful critical thinkers generally share the following characteristics:

  • Open-minded. Acceptance of new ideas, even with their inherent biases, is crucial to this process. Not everyone approaches a problem with the same experience or knowledge, but that doesn't mean their ideas are not valuable. The ability to accept that our idea may have been wrong or incompletely thought out is an extension of this open-mindedness.
  • Think logically. Applying critical thinking requires that criteria must be defined for a problem's components. Using precisely defined criteria to measure information allows for a more objective evaluation of data, removing biases and setting a standard to which all stakeholders must adhere. Replacing emotional barriers with logic can help you spot flaws in your processes that you may not have otherwise.
  • Reasonable. The best decision-making involves arguments from multiple angles, including negative ones. Using carefully researched data to entertain all possible outcomes requires an unbiased approach to the information. Informed decisions are based on sound reasoning of all aspects of the problem.
  • Collaborative. Loyalty to "our" idea is a human trait, but stepping outside of our own frame of reference requires conscious thought. By working with a group of individuals, each of whom has their own biases and knowledge levels, new ideas can be exposed. Good critical thinkers welcome the opportunity to make the right decision, versus inflexibly insisting on a particular solution.

Effective management skills include the ability to think critically, and making the right decision under pressure is what defines successful businesspeople. Managers and staff must weigh all possible solutions; this can be time-consuming and require involving many people in the decision, but ultimately it leads to better choices. Some examples of critical thinking applied in the workplace follow.

Innovation creates successful business products, and being closed off to new ideas automatically stifles innovation. Opening up to a variety of solutions can help you create new options for your customers.

Let's say a publisher of textbooks is informed by its sales team that educators want better options for creating exams. A manager resistant to new ideas, technology or expense may insist the company continue to provide the printed exams it always has. A critical-thinking manager instead may take the time to explore providing new, digital exam-building tools. In the first scenario, the company risks losing market share to competitors who provide its customers with better tools; in the latter, responding to direct customer requests with new offerings keeps the company competitive in a dynamic market.

Critical thinking makes it far more likely that you can create a range of products to suit your customer's needs. Using the same example, a critical-thinking manager at the textbook publisher not only takes the time to investigate options, but is comfortable taking the problem to colleagues across other departments. The collaborative nature of this process generates ideas from individuals who might not have otherwise been involved in the decision-making process. Ultimately, the company may discover that there are cost-effective ways to offer customers choices among several digital and print exam-building tools. The critical thinking process can easily generate multiple solutions borne out of one question.

In another example, applying the critical thinking process to product development may allow for a more polished product. A company that markets to legal professionals, recognizing that their customers are required to maintain continuing education credits, decides to create an online continuing education delivery tool.

The team member who first suggested the idea is heavily invested in the product, having dreamed it up and spent long hours developing it. Launching such a product without exposing it to a critical thinking process would be unwise; namely because the original developer may be too emotionally involved to spot potential flaws in their proposal.

A lengthier process that allows colleagues to test the product can reveal glitches or inconsistencies that deserve to be addressed ahead of time. The tool may get to market later and require more funding to develop, but will ultimately stand as a better product, which in turn could solidify the company's relationship with their customer base.

Marketing professionals especially benefit from critical thinking. A product's packaging, message and advertising is most successful when targeted at a specific demographic. Because marketing also relies on an emotional reaction from customers, it is absolutely crucial that multiple voices and viewpoints are brought to the table. Applied critical thinking skills also drive research and preparation. Take focus groups; when properly incorporated into product development, these groups can provide invaluable feedback – feedback that could alter the course of development altogether. And while the collaborative process takes longer and costs more – focus groups, for instance, can eat up a lot of time – the findings will bring about a highly targeted, highly effective marketing campaign.

Ideally, critical thinking skills should be taught in school, but that's not always the case. Students are more often passive consumers of an educator's information dump, encouraged to absorb and then regurgitate key concepts. Because critical thinking requires conscious intervention in one's own thought process, teachers could better instruct students to ask the questions that lead to a clear, objective answer.

Developing good critical thinking habits requires mastery of four basic skills:

  1. Knowledge. Asking questions about the issue at hand generates the critical thinking process. Who, what, when, where and why an issue occurs should be thoroughly explored.
  2. Comprehension. Once the information-gathering is complete, collaborators should not only understand the information but also should be able to organize it and prioritize the ideas under discussion.
  3. Application. Using logical thinking, the application of facts and established rules to ideas can drive unbiased group decision-making.
  4. Analysis. Taking apart a problem or process is required to critically approach solving it. Examining each component separately further educates each collaborator, and thereby informs decision-making.

These particular skills do not naturally develop as we age and gain life experience. Our native approach to problem-solving causes us to create a story in response to an open-ended question. This story is packed with our own biases and prejudices, and therefore is usually incomplete. Learning to apply the critical thinking process teaches us to step out of our individual experiences to fully understand all aspects of the story.

It can be difficult to adequately assess one's strengths and weaknesses as a critical thinker. The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal is an industry favorite. This tool is an effective method of measuring one's ability to make decisions based on solid critical thinking. The ability to practice good judgment, be open to new ideas and to think creatively are all assessed on a 40-item multiple choice test. Try some sample questions or take the test online to measure your cognitive ability.

The development of good critical thinking skills is a lifelong learning experience; effective business people understand that there are valuable takeaways in every success and every mistake. Making the choice to consciously remove yourself from your own prejudices is a skill that can be honed with each business interaction. There are a few steps that you can take to refine your critical thinking skills as you move through your career.

  • Always take the time to clearly identify your goal. Asking the important questions immediately sets you up for the crucial information-gathering stage. Resist the temptation to dive into projects without first assessing exactly what you aim to accomplish and how you're going to get there. This may seem obvious, but a surprising number of businesses skip this first step and suffer the consequences.
  • Know your own biases. None of us can escape our personal histories and cultural influences; good critical thinking requires us to acknowledge them so that we don't allow them to infringe upon our decision-making. When you have an emotional reaction to an issue, articulate exactly what that emotion is. Explore it and understand it so that it doesn't color future decisions.
  • Anticipate all consequences. In business, it's tempting to focus on the success of your product or service. Applying critical thinking means that all outcomes, even negative or unintentional ones, are explored. Consider the impact of your choice on every stakeholder. If you made a poor one, scrutinize it to find your mistake(s); examining your process dispassionately may reveal your error and prevent you from repeating it.

Some business professionals find it useful to ask colleagues to challenge their ideas. Requesting input from a person who is emotionally detached from your project or idea can reveal quite a bit, perhaps even exposing an angle you hadn't considered. This process requires you to be open to criticism and ready to accept that you may be wrong; if done well, however, it will lead you towards better decision making. And critical thinking, at its core, is all about making you a confident and effective decision maker. Someone who understands the right way to go about executing any idea and what they themselves bring to the table to make that execution of an idea top notch.

Image via Flickr