Critical Thinking

Critical Thinking

Recently I was having a discussion with a colleague on developing a way forward on a problem we were working on together. As he was outlining his proposed solution, I mentioned that I believed that we needed to engage in some critical thinking before we proposed any solutions.  My colleague took exception to my comment and was slightly offended that I would suggest he was not a critical thinker. After issuing an apology for interrupting his pitch, I explained that I was not saying that his proposal was not intelligent or well thought out, but that perhaps we should engage in some critical thinking as to if this problem was worth putting the effort in to solve. He accepted my apology and agreed with my point.

What occurred to me is that we might not all have the same view of what critical thinking is. To my colleague, he saw critical thinking as coming up with a solution to the problem at hand. I saw critical thinking as a more strategic function of applying a broader problem solving process.  After doing a little research, it turns out we were both only partially correct.  An online search led me to the Foundation for Critical Thinking. There I found several definitions of critical thinking from various authors including Michael Scriven, Richard Paul, Linda Elder and Edward Glaser. I won’t take up space repeating the definitions here, but there were several themes among all of the definitions presented that I think are worth mentioning in relation to being a successful leader. I added a few of my own thoughts below each one:

1)  An intellectually disciplined process (Scriven and Paul, 1987)

Are we applying logic and reason to the information we have available? Are our assertions supported by evidence? Can we trace our conclusions back through the process to our starting point without skipping steps or leaving out key pieces of evidence?

2)  Transcending subject matter divisions (Scriven and Paul, 1987)

I think this is especially important as the leader of a team of functional experts. Each of your team may see the problem from their own perspective, but as leaders, we need to view things across all of those functional perspectives

3)  Raising Vital Questions and Problems (Paul and Elder, 2008)

If the question or problem isn’t of vital importance, maybe our time is better served working on something that is.

4)  Gathering information not just for the sake of gathering information (Scriven and Paul, 1987) but using abstract ideas to interpret that information effectively to come to well reasoned conclusions and solutions. (Paul and Elder, 2008)

We often spend time gathering more and more information trying to understand everything about a particular topic or issue, but the information is no good to us if we don’t analyze, synthesize and apply it to solving the problem. Often leaders become paralyzed waiting for more information when properly interpreting the information at hand can lead to a valid solution.

5)  Recognizing the existence (or non-existence) of logical relationships between propositions (Glaser, 1941)

Seeing connections between things, especially when they are not obvious, can result in finding a simple and elegant solution to a problem. Also, the logic fault of assuming a connection must be present when there is no evidence for one can lead us astray.

6)  Thinking openmindedly within alternative systems of thought (Paul and Elder, 2008)

Approaching a problem from a perspective other than your own can often lead to insights into the situation that you may not have seen before.

7)  Testing ideas against relevant criteria and standards (Paul and Elder, 2008)

Does the solution or solutions match up to what we know to be true about the situation? Does it conform to the laws of physics or other criteria that may limit the effectiveness of the solution if not well understood?

8)  Communicating Effectively (Paul and Elder, 2008)

Just as important as getting to the solution is being able to convince others to understand and support the solution. Without that support you may never get your solution implemented.

So that’s just a summary of what I learned about critical thinking this week. It turns out it wasn’t exactly what I thought it was; but, when done properly, can be an even stronger skill than I imagined. This is by no means an exhaustive list and I have a good deal more research to do on this topic, but I wanted to share my initial look into it.

How do you apply critical thinking on your team?

Material sourced from The original sources cited on their page are:

A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987.

Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, Foundation for Critical Thinking Press, 2008

Edward M. Glaser, An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, 1941

Letting Followers Innovate

Every now and then a member of our team will come to us with an idea of a new process, method or procedure to implement that they feel will get the job done better, or will be easier, or, in the best of cases, both. As leaders we often feel an internal conflict in this situation. We want to foster innovation, but also are concern the risks and resistance that come along with change. My advice is to encourage your team to innovate, with some actively engaged leadership on your part.

It can be difficult to determine sometimes if there really is a benefit to be gained by implementing a follower’s suggestions or if they are merely whining about the status quo. A simple way that I have found to find the answer is to allow the follower to implement the change, but to make them take the lead for implementing it, i.e. you will let them make their change, but they have to do all the research on how to make it happen, assess the potential benefits and risks, come up with the plan to train the rest of the team on how to implement the change, and measure how successful the change has been.  Followers who are enthusiastic about the change will embrace the opportunity presented to them and the whiners will simply allow the status quo to continue.

As the boss, you’ll still need to provide them with appropriate guidance and direction as they develop their plan. You should let them know up front what you consider a successful outcome would be as well as any risks that you believe are unacceptable to assume in this endeavor. You should be clear if there are other processes or procedures that are off-limits to change as they consider their path forward.

Set a definite time and date that they need to come back to you to review their progress and decide if you will go forward with their initiative.  Give them a list of items they must address in that review to get your go-ahead.

Once you’re ready to let them implement, don’t immediate throw out the old way of doing things in favor of this one. If possible, run parallel processes and compare the results of the two ways of doing things. This will definitely be a little more work, but may be worth it to be able to compare your results. If parallel efforts aren’t possible, set a clear trial period, such as a month or 90 days to assess the results. Make sure the person proposing the initiative determines how to measure if the new method is successful and that you approve of the assessment.

If, after the trial period, the new way is clearly superior, or easier to accomplish, or has some other benefits, adopt the new method. If the new method was not successful, perform an honest assessment with the proposer of where it fell short, what lessons learned came of it, and if addressing those issues could result in a successful outcome. If the answer is yes, let them go back, make the adjustments, re-propose and try again.

What are other ways you’ve fostered innovation on your team while still managing risk?

Be Braver than the Bureaucracy!

Sometimes as a leader you come into an organization or team that has already been established for a long period of time and you see a need to make some changes in order to better achieve your strategic objectives. Often these teams have their own processes and personalities that may or may not be responsible for (or a detriment to) the success of the team. Depending on how large your team is and where you fit in the larger organization, you may find that making a meaningful change to the way the team operates is a Herculean task when you face the legions of people in the bureaucracy who will resist change. This will require patience, tenacity and an ability to be braver than bureaucracy!

Some tips to help you fight bureaucratic inertia if you need to make some changes:

Don’t implement change simply for the sake of change. Have a rationale for why the change is important. Is the team failing at an important goal? Have the strategic objectives or mission of the organization changed over time, but the processes haven’t adapted to the new roles?

Determine if the current processes are meeting your strategic objectives.  If they seem to be adequate but could use some improvement, solicit help from your team members. Describe the results you want and see if the team can optimize the processes on their own. If the current way of doing things is failing miserably, you may have to throw it all out and implement a new method.

Recognize that there may be some emotional attachment to the current processes. You could be “upsetting the apple cart” for someone. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make the changes you believe are necessary, but understand you’ll have some smoothing to do until the team fully embraces the new way of business. If major change eliminates a task that a team member was passionate about, find a new role for them and emphasize the importance of that role to the big picture.

Expect resistance. There will be some who are really entrenched! They’ll try to wait you out, go around you or even go over your head to prevent your changes from being implemented. Building a good relationship with your functional counterparts and your own boss while providing a rational basis for the change you want to achieve in terms of meeting the strategic goals of the organization is a good way to get your colleagues and superiors to re-direct the subversive types back to you so you can deal with their concerns.

Take baby steps. Change doesn’t have to happen all at once. Making a small change and letting people get used to it can help silence the naysayers when they see it really isn’t that bad. If you’re not in a crisis and have the time, a series of small steps may get you there faster than one big step.

Figure out how you will measure if the change you make is having a positive effect. There might be a lot of people waiting for your initiative to fail so they can say I told you so. Show how the incremental changes you have made are making incremental improvements towards meeting not just your team’s objectives, but the overall strategic objectives of the organization.

Progress can’t occur without change. Most people realize this but are still reluctant to embrace change because uncertainty can be scary. There will be some who will put roadblocks in your path and try to undermine you (possibly even members of your own team) to avoid dealing with that uncertainty. Sometimes it may feel easier to give up on change to avoid fighting the battles, but you have to be brave! Use your leadership skills to communicate with your team and understand their apprehension. Show them how you’ll face the uncertainty together as all work towards success!