Critical Thinking For Owners & Managers

As an owner or manager, you absolutely need critical thinking skills; you will need to incisively question strategies, targets, projects, reports and most tricky of all, people.  And critical thinking is the bedrock of being able to do so. 

But we sometimes find that owners and managers worry about: 

 

    1. Whether they have the right critical thinking skills to succeed in today’s fast-moving, competitive environment 
    2. What critical thinking actually is!

 

This blog is here to shed light and provide a simple framework and a few practical ideas to help with your critical thinking. 

What is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is the ability to analyse logically, and comprehend, the (often unseen) links between concepts, ideas and actions. It’s the ability to think critically, creatively and independently and it’s a fundamental life skill; not just a business skill. 

The Law of the Lid

In a recent (excellent) video by my coach Marco, referred to John C Maxwell and his book ‘The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership’ in which he refers to the Law of the Lid. 

Maxwell suggests, unsurprisingly, that your success as a leader and manager is limited by your ability as a leader.  If you don’t have the right skills to organise your people properly, and don’t make well thought out decisions, you and your business will hit a ceiling – the lid!  In order to lift the ceiling, we need to improve our own performance which means lifting your lid. 

Why is Critical Thinking Important?

These skills are important because they help you to solve problems more effectively, think more creatively and ultimately make better decisions.  Honing these skills is a lifelong journey which will position you as better able to approach problems multi-dimensionally, better able to see all sides of a problem and, perhaps, even more critically, understand the implications of your decisions.  You are also better positioned to question people, information and spot flawed logic. 

Developing these skills can also help you to communicate more effectively. You’ll increase your ability to ask better questions, listen more attentively to the answers, tease apart the logic and explain and present your own ideas more clearly. This alone can sometimes make it easier to resolve conflicts and build quality relationships. 

For instance, let’s say you’re considering the relative merits of two (or more) projects each of which requires both funding and your (very precious) attention, but you don’t have the cash or headspace for everything.  With incisive thinking skills, you’ll be able to critically assess the pros and cons of each and make the decision that’s best for you. 

Critical Thinking Questions

There is a great little, easy to remember, “ditty” originally penned by Rudyard Kipling.  I have to say I only remember the first four lines.  So, when I looked it up, to check that I remembered it correctly, I found that there is in fact more… a lot more…

I haven’t reproduced it all here, but I think the whole of the first verse is really pretty pertinent when it comes to critical thinking:

 

I keep six honest serving-men 

   (They taught me all I knew); 

Their names are What and Why and When  

   And How and Where and Who. 

I send them over land and sea, 

   I send them east and west; 

But after they have worked for me, 

   I give them all a rest. 

 

Additionally, and actually quite importantly, I’d also suggest the What, Why, When, How, Where and Who can be made even more useful if you relate them to specific components of your business, and indeed, the people within and around them. 

Reorganising them to make them more business specific, very broadly, we end up with: 

 

  • Why – being about the vision 
  • What – being about the strategy 
  • Who – being about your stakeholders  
  • When – being about the timelines 
  • How – being about the methods and processes  
  • Where – being about target markets and segmentation 

 

Obviously, all of the above can be more nuanced, nothing is set in stone.  As ever, I think it’s about using (and abusing) these ideas, so they fit with how you think about your business. 

A critical thinking cheat sheet, with a starter for 10 set of questions, can be found and downloaded here. 

6 Critical Thinking Skills

So, in addition to the questions there are probably six important critical thinking skills to master:

1. Observation

Observation is the ability to look at people, data, processes, and situations in order to first take it in and then make sense of it. Importantly, when you are observing, you’re not just looking at it.  You are also actively thinking about what you’re seeing. 

For example, let’s say you’re observing a process. You might notice the speed of the activity, the engagement of the people undertaking the activity, the tools and equipment being used.  At the same time, you might also be thinking about why the process works this way, what would happen if it were different, and how other companies might do a similar thing. 

2. Analysis

Analysis is the process of picking apart something complex; a detailed examination of something in component parts in order to understand; its nature, its essential features and how it works. 

Analysis is about taking information and data and breaking it down into smaller parts.  Critical to this is the ability to ask questions. 

For example, if you’re given an operational process problem, you might analyse it by thinking about the individual activities or tasks needed to execute the process. 

3. Synthesis

Synthesis, the opposite of analysis, is about building things from the ground up or the act of combining smaller elements to form something new, larger, and usually more complex

And hopefully better, slicker and quicker than the previous incarnation. Additionally, synthesis can be either concrete or abstract. 

4. Inference

Is the process of drawing a conclusion based on the evidence available. When you make an inference, you are using your understanding of your business, the world around you, and all of the information you have gleaned, to come to some (hopefully) logical conclusion.

5. Problem Solving

Problem solving does what it says on the tin.  It involves thinking both critically (analysis) and creatively (synthesis). So, if you can’t solve problems, (and communicate them – see next) then you ain’t gonna get a lot done 

For example, if you want to improve your operational processes, you need to be able to identify the problems; the sales conversion rate is not high enough, on time delivery is poor, and then putting together some kind of improvement plan to change things. 

6. Communication

Communication sits at the pinnacle of these skills bringing everything together.  It is the ability to share your thoughts and ideas with others concisely and clearly, both verbally and in writing.  Obviously, if you can’t communicate your ideas to others, (investors, board members, staff customers, suppliers) then…

  1. they won’t understand you
  2. nothing much will change. 

In addition to the above there are a few little “themes” that may also permeate the above skills, for instance, things like: 

  • Being open-minded and willing to consider new and different ideas and perspectives 
  • Being aware of your biases: We all have biases that can influence our approach and our thinking. In fact, I recently stumbled across a World Economic Forum report detailing 180 biases! Split into 24 different categories! Who knew! 
  • Practice, practice, practice. The best way to master any skill, but particularly, critical thinking, is to “just do it”.  Look at a business, a discussion or meeting, a personality, a TV show, literature or indeed a world problem and just start applying some of the cheat sheet questions. 

Tools to Help

There are various tools to help with many of the above skills just a few of them might include:  

Conclusion

The notes above will hopefully help jump start your (or perhaps some of your people’s) road to thinking critically. However, this is undoubtedly a process, that can literally be honed over a lifetime it’s not a destination. 

Critical thinking is a habit that will help you see beyond the surface level of a problem, issue or view, that really seeks to get to the heart of the matter.   

Done properly, thoughtfully and incisively, thinking critically is a massively valuable professional asset. 

Related tools and ideas

Recommended references

Downloadable resources

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