At the end of last year and into this fresh new year, I’ve been running some workshops with a big corporate on critical thinking. The emphasis is not so much about the mechanical elements like models, tools and processes, although they do prove popular. The intent is much more about creating, maintaining and supporting a culture that is friendly to critical thinking and thinkers. They’d like a ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ kind of vibe.
Like any organisation attempting to bolster its stock of skills, there are a few ways of going about it. Training is an obvious one and, as a trainer by trade, I am not going to talk you out of that. Depending on the money you’ve got to throw around as an incentive and what time pressures you’re under, another option is to recruit or outsource that skill. What if we’re not talking about the skill of critical thinking though; what if we’re talking about the critical thinking attitude? Do we recruit that? Could we outsource it? Is it even possible to train it?
Before we tackle these questions, let me start by saying the moment you reveal to any trainees a bunch of critical thinking tools, they may well have the intention of applying these on serious strategic and operational work issues and projects but that’s not the first thing they think might benefit from the tools. People default to their personal lives and decision matrices, forcefield analyses and cause-effect diagrams get applied to wedding plans, house purchases and to relationships (both forwards and retrospectively). I swear there is a fortune to be made for critical thinking trainers in relationship decision-making, although that is a workshop I definitely do not want to run!
All jokes and broken marriages aside, providing tools that normal people can see as relevant and applicable to their personal and work lives is one element of nurturing a culture. Get enough people engaged like that and you generate noise and interest. Soon there is a critical mass and a tipping point. It’s less some weird new thing that we learned on a course that we use on special occasions; it’s become more of ‘the way things are done around here’.
Yes, you can train it. Yes, you could accelerate the process by recruiting it. As long as you are adding competencies like teamwork, customer service, and problem solving to your list when recruiting, would one more hurt? The trick in the tale though is if you recruit critical thinkers or people inclined to do so, but then once they arrive it becomes clear quickly that critical thinking is not the ways things are done around here. Training is not going to solve anything other than a skill issue. What would be helpful is some role modelling and structural elements that make critical thinking part of business as usual. When newbies witness someone sticking their head above the parapet to critique something in a healthy way, what happens next is a powerful and essential indicator of the extent to which they’ll ever stick their own head up. As part of any onboarding / induction process, it would be helpful to create or immerse new arrivals into situations or simulations where people do apply critical thinking and their input gets acknowledged, addressed and perhaps even rewarded.
When you google the term ‘critical thinking’, the top three results are: what are the five critical thinking skills; what are the six critical thinking skills; what are the seven critical thinking skills. Are critical thinking skills like razors? They just keep adding another blade as some never-ending marketing game of chicken? I think the ‘five people’ should talk to the ‘seven’ people. I think a critical component of critical thinking isn’t the comprehensiveness of the toolkit nor the 5-7 skills required. I think it’s the ability to better understand the way we think and the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of getting to our conclusions. That requires a self-awareness or a desire for a self-awareness that should be aimed for in recruiting, supported during onboarding and boosted via subsequent training and practical application and reinforcement.
It’s fantastic that for years we’ve been able to walk into parent-teacher meetings in many New Zealand primary schools and see DeBono’s six thinking hats posters on the wall. (Look it up). A classic critical thinking tool being used by educators across a society to enable kids to think critically and examine ideas from differing perspectives if they choose to do so. (That’s the trick, especially during election time). Kids, the employees of tomorrow with ever changing and expanding content need to know how to think not just what to think today. I’m not sure how many boardrooms or planning spaces have those posters. The google debate rages over whether there are five or six or seven critical thinking skills but there are always only ever six thinking hats.
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“Every thought on the wire leads to a fall.” – Philippe Petit, High Wire Aerialist
People feel much more responsible for their actions than their inactions. Joseph Hallinan says in his book ‘Errornomics – Why We Make Mistakes’ that at the moment you think you’re making a decision, it only seems so. It’s really long after the real decision was actually made.
Most days are made up of a series of decisions. Some are like which of three cereals should you have for breakfast or which task to start next. Some decisions might be about buying a house or signing a contract to undergo elective surgery. Maybe you agonise over every decision or just the big ones or none at all? The rest you just go with your gut feeling. Sometimes you’ll regret the decisions you make, or choose not to make, and sometimes you won’t. What’s the smartest way to make decisions or help others make them? It depends on the complexity of the decision.
Ap Dijksterhuis out of the University of Amsterdam conducted several studies on just this subject. However, like many of the researchers I’ve read for this book, they used sentences like, “Because of the low processing capacity of consciousness, conscious thought was hypothesized to be maladaptive when making complex decisions.” And they’re right but wordy. In my words, it’s hard to think about a bunch of complicated things at once.
You might like to imagine you’re a rational, logical person who’ll weigh up the pro’s and cons of each decision you make, especially the big ones, and make the best decision you can with the information you have. But what Dijksterhuis proved was quite different. He studied consumers and shoppers in lab conditions and in actual sales situations – during and after. The ‘after’ is especially important, as that is when the true quality and impact of a decision hit home.
All participants were facing a purchase decision of varying sizes. Half were interrupted and distracted during their decision-making process. All were subsequently followed up on how they felt about their decision post-purchase. The thinking was that the distraction allowed the unconscious mind, which can handle lots of complexity at once, to process the decision. It hooks into the brains emotional centres. This is where ‘gut feelings’ may come from. Plus emotional responses to the decision choices are pre-rehearsed and emotional responses to each assessed by your brain with you not consciously aware of them.
His findings were that “simple choices (such as between different towels or different sets of oven mitts) indeed produce better results after conscious thought, but that choices in complex matters (such as between different houses or different cars) should be left to unconscious thought. Named the ‘deliberation-without-attention’ hypothesis, it was confirmed in four studies.”
Conscious thought focuses attention on whatever factors manage to squeeze themselves into our limited conscious mind at the time. That distorts perception and can over-inflate the relative importance of certain factors.
Researcher Loren Nordgren joked about Rene Descartes’ famous quote, “I think therefore I am.” That was all well and good but was he always happy with the shoes he chose to buy? Over-thinking doesn’t make for good decisions when it’s not a simple decision.
I’m not suggesting that lack of attention is a good thing. Otherwise we may as well put teenagers in charge of all the important decisions. Most can usually (always) be relied upon to provide the ‘without attention’ component! No, it has to be a bit more structured than that.
Both studies look at what might be called intentional self distraction. They contrasted three approaches to decision-making: make an instant choice, long list of pro’s and cons, briefly distracting the conscious mind. The latter was the most effective and, down the road a bit, evoked the least regret.
If you just skim read Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Blink’, you might assume that instant decisions are often best. But on closer examination, I reckon Gladwell agrees with Dijksterhuis. Both reject the supposedly time-tested tradition of logically weighing up over a period of intense concentration a list of pro’s and cons. It takes ages and delivers a poorer result.
My shorthand version of a useful process is:
1. Introduce the problem and range of solution options
2. Carry out a pre-set 3 minute distraction activity.
3. Return to the problem and / or the options. Make your choice.
4. Live with it.
I had it drummed into me and I subsequently preached to those I trained about the commonsense of structured event interviewing as a tool for recruiting. I was schooled on the value of decision matrix spreadsheets when evaluating complex contract tender responses. Does this research mean those formal processes have no value? No. Recruiting and big contracts are expensive and the consequences of mistakes are significant. At the very least, you may need to retrospectively justify your decision. (ie Cover your butt.) I think the lesson of deliberation-without-attention is that it pays to try both approaches. If they don’t match, you might need to do some more research and ask some more questions.
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This HBR article about debriefing is one I wish I’d written. (From meglomaniacal me, that’s high praise.) I’m often directing participants in my training workshops to conduct debriefs. I tend to use experiential models a lot. For non-trainers (muggles?), that means we do things, then learn from them in a structured way. I favour a 3-phased approach FAD, repeated over and over:
- Frame the activity
- Debrief the activity
I hear a lot of people using the word ‘debrief’ and its meaning seems to vary wildly. In that sense, the word ‘debrief’ is much like the word ‘spicy’ or the word ‘love.’ I try to consistently summarise the meaning of it in my workshops, not just because we’ll use it in the workshops but because it’s one of the most useful things you’ll ever learn in life, not just for work, but for situations where things happen and you’d benefit from learning afterwards. That applies a lot outside work (hopefully.) Relationships and families could well do with that skill. It’d certainly give us something to talk about over compulsory Sunday night family dinners.
To do something and to deliberately learn from it is what successful people do. That might even be a great definition of what success is. To do something and maybe learn from it or not learn from it is what most people do most of the time. Don’t be most people. They’re nice enough but…
The HBR article gives a great structure if you want to either learn debriefing yourself or communicate it to others:
- Schedule a regular time and place (ie make debriefing part of the way things are done around here!)
- Create a learning environment
- Review 4 key questions: What were we trying to accomplish?; Where did we hit or miss our objectives?; What caused our results?; What should we stop / start / continue doing?
- Codify lessons learned (People after us will learn from our mistakes, not theirs.)