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

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