7 Steps: Critical Thinking in the Workplace

Written by Chris Jones

It’s About Time, Skill and Permission

Today’s workplace is often hectic, and it’s easier than ever to become overwhelmed in a death spiral of missing information and critical decisions. Things we need to know pile up in our inbox, unread. Decisions await quality cycles that never seem to materialize, often due to lack of information. Meeting after meeting demands our precious time, only to see us fall victim to smart phones signaling the arrival of still more unreadable emails.

So the vicious cycle continues.

It’s a small wonder that work is accomplished anymore. Often, it is not, as we mistake activity for real progress.

To me, the moral of the story is clear:  the ability to seek a deep, rigorous understanding of our challenges – call it critical thinking – tends to escape us when we need it most.

I’ve started to unpack the scope and scale of it (as here). But here are some ways that we can breathe purpose and intent back into our problem solving:

  • Using data to drive decisions: Replace guesswork with facts and data. Add lead time to decision cycles to accommodate data capture and trending. Challenge decisions that materialize without supporting data.
  • Do your homework, and share it: Citing sources isn’t just a technique of academics, it’s the basis for making a strong case, helping explain pro’s/con’s of the decision at hand
  • Vet your conclusions: Get help from others. Diverse perspectives almost always ensure a more viable solution.
  • Know your SMEs: There are experts out there in your organization, and more than likely, outside it. Find them, and get to know them. Social media is a powerful way to accomplish that.
  • Get past “face value”: Don’t settle for surface impressions. What are the root cause factors of problems you’re trying to solve? Can you get to the source issues, and address those? Think about mowing weeds in your lawn, vs. pulling them out, root and all. Which do you do?
  • Build your skills: Read. Or, better still, write. Have in-depth conversations on important, complex topics. Explore current events.  Education reformers are debating whether schools are pulling away from thinking skills in favor of recitation of facts. If you have kids, what better way to bolster your own thinking skills than by helping them with theirs?
  • Prioritize “think time”: Time constraints will always be the enemy of deep thought. Try to “time box” your problem solving for top problems.

What are the Biggest Barriers?

Beyond skills and time, I come back again and again to the impact that culture has on shaping behavior in our workplace. It effects everyone in subtle and powerful ways, including many of those – dare I say, even people like us, ready to challenge the status quo – who fall far too quickly into the old traps and habits.

We need cultural dynamics that encourage – even, give permission – to take the extra time needed to think things through. The ideas listed above are for the individual.

Try These at the Organizational Level

  • Encourage adoption of a learning culture: Define success as “raising the bar”, seeking a measurable increase on the emergence of deep thinking across the organization. It would champion collaboration and knowledge sharing. And it would place a high premium – if not a mandate – on critical thinking as the means to make rational, well-supported business decisions.
  • Foster a learning organization: Whether it’s Senge or Wheatley or Argyris that inspire your view of it, the culture and skills that embrace critical thinking can transform what an organization is capable of achieving. Put it on the road map. Make it happen.

And if we don’t?  We all know that world. We make snap decisions, falling pray to past formulas and taking the default path of playing it safe.

Isn’t it time to make the time for critical thinking?

NOTE: This post was originally contributed by Chris Jones. He is an IT Strategy & Change Management consultant, with a passion for driving new levels of engagement and learning in the modern organization. His research areas include the dynamics of organization culture, and more recently, the importance and implications of critical thinking. Check out his blog, Driving Innovation in a Complex World, for more insights.

Image Credit: Fotopedia

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