Critical thinking covers all active, goal-oriented thinking: problem-solving, decision-making, creative thinking, and employs both inductive and deductive methods of reasoning. Faddish concepts like higher-order thinking are in reality just a repackaging of critical thinking, as can be quickly seen by perusing Bloom’s taxonomy – memory, understanding, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation, creation.
As Alan Sokal pointed out in Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science: “A mode of thought does not become ‘critical’ simply by attributing that label to itself, but by virtue of its content.”
An essential point to remember, though it is often ignored in our politically-correct world, is that all our thinking is conditioned by our worldview, the framework for the entire range of our cultural influences and commitments, social, political, economic, and aesthetic. You cannot understand the way you or others think unless you understand the worldview in play, the sense of ultimate purpose, and the way in which the meaning of life is interpreted.
It takes a long time to develop sound critical thinking, but every step of the journey brings significant rewards. The educational process for developing it must of necessity be an everyday activity so that critical thinking becomes a habit. Which brings us to our second question, “How do we use it?” Well, the obvious starting point is checking the contents of our arsenal, all the critical thinking faculties identified above. These have to be continually developed and actively exercised in the spirit of the old adage: use it or lose it.
I recently helped a general manager of an engineering firm tackle a crisis he had been brought in to resolve. The highly reputable and once inventive company, headed by an aging entrepreneur who seemed to have at least one eye on retirement, had not only an impressive track record but had also demonstrated a creative expertise none of its competitors had yet been able to match. The crisis had arisen as a result of a management failure to answer the question, “Where next?” The CEO had become insular, the staff uneasy and looking elsewhere, and stagnant processes and profits were a cause for real concern. The trouble-shooting general manager was desperate and isolated.
In two sessions of critical thinking, I helped him identify and articulate the very considerable potential possessed by the company to enter into an exciting new phase of growth that promised rich rewards for all concerned. Three rigorously thought-out scenarios were detailed in the presentation that the general manager took to the CEO, with the far-reaching implications spelled out in each case. Sadly, without offering any rational justification, the CEO opted for the status quo, with its sporadic sales, cynical workforce, and looming obsolescence and health and safety issues on the shop floor. Critical thinking had for so long been dormant, that it was rejected when brought in to address the long-brewing crisis.
Psychological factors often stymie critical thinking, but at least everybody now knew where they stood, and knowing the truth is always empowering. The general manager resigned and moved on to better things, soon to be followed by key members of staff.
The demands of this case typically employed the full range, critical thinking faculties, even if sometimes subconsciously. Common sense told us the challenge was an under-performing company causing stress and anxiety for all concerned. Our overarching goal had to be changing this situation to bring about the flourishing of the company and all the people involved, including the wider community.
Cultural literacy gave us Aristotle’s insight that all change involves the transformation of potential into actuality, so understanding the full potential of the company had to be the first step. That meant understanding the CEO and the staff, and their motivations, and the business as currently constituted, as well as its history, how it came to be what it is. Analysing the market, local and international, was also essential, and inevitably required all our professional expertise, experience, and insight.
Understanding the company’s potential enabled us to grasp the causes of the malaise, and to conceptualise the exciting possibilities open to it so that we could envision a future that would be rewarding for all. Imagination and instinct helped us to see fresh and unexpected patterns in the same data that had been available to management before this exercise, and language allowed us to articulate our thinking, crystalize our ideas, and ask probing questions.
And that’s the nub of critical thinking – asking the right questions. As W Edwards Deming put it: “If you do not know how to ask the right question, you discover nothing.” What, after all, is a SWOT analysis other than an exercise to provoke questions? And brainstorming has to start with a puzzle, which is just another name for a question that produces further questions.
Some years back, in a strategy workshop, I gave a list of questions (available on page 199 of Leaders and Misleaders) to a group of senior scientists. Several of them headed business units, and one got back to me a few weeks later to thank me for the questions. His general manager had been nagging him for an overdue business plan, and he decided to use the set of questions as a basis for a brainstorming session with his team of scientists. The result was a business plan that had his general manager ululating.
There are many ways of provoking probing questions, and then reframing them so as to come at the challenge from different and unexpected perspectives, but it is the well-stocked mind that will always bear the most fruit. G K Chesterton told us, “Thinking is connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected.” The more knowledge you accumulate, the more connections you will generate. Cultural literacy determines the reach of your critical thinking.