The Growing Importance of Critical Thinking (And The Failure of Academia to Teach It)

Riddle me this: what is it that you can’t touch, see, or feel, but may influence your consulting career more than anything else?

It may be the most important real world skill in existence, but young professionals lack it in droves.

And it causes them to fail interviews, delay promotions, and in some cases, stagnate their careers.

The “it” I’m talking about is critical thinking.

Over 95 percent of the hundreds, if not thousands, of college students who I’ve interviewed are missing these skills.

It’s not their fault. They were never taught critical thinking skills in high school or college.

What Is Critical Thinking

Our clients are awash in data. There’s too much to analyze, too little time to accomplish their plans, and too many pressing problems that need immediate attention.

This is why they hire you — as consultants, or as full-time employees.

A serious situation arises that threatens their business and they need to fix it — stat.

Critical thinking helps you to:

  1. Analyze the most relevant information
  2. Interpret the data into real, actionable solutions
  3. Present your findings
  4. Evaluate the success of the solutions

Let’s say your client or your company has tapped you to solve its problem of declining profitability.

Using your critical thinking skills, you’d follow the following process:

Analyze

You could grab every piece of data you can find; you’d prioritize what you need. You’d ask: what is the real problem, and what does the client really need?

In this scenario, sure, your client wants to make more money. But that is not an actionable goal — you need to deconstruct the situation to identify the real problem before you can solve it.

Driver trees are a great way to structure your thinking and work your way through the problem-solving process and get to the root cause. Cost, revenue, taxes, and other buckets can be further deconstructed to manageable chunks.

Then you gather data and get as close as possible to the source — the customer, employee, supplier, system, whatever — to get a clear, empathetic picture of what it is happening.

As you gather data and listen to the voice of the customer, your task is to collect only the information that pertains to your client’s objective. This is a great way to filter the signal from the noise and make quick progress, so you can apply the right tools for the job and come up with relevant answers.

Interpret

Once you have collected the information you need, then you view it from multiple perspectives, logically and rationally, to uncover the top three to five solution options.

As you pour over the data, you’re looking to make connections between ideas.

Framework and mental models are great tools to evaluate ideas and translate them to the real world. Since most business problems are complicated and too complex to be comprehended in their entirety, a model contains only those features that are of primary importance to the purpose at hand.

A model should be as simple as possible, while still representing the desired system attributes with integrity.

As you sift through the information, you are likely to find multiple profitability leakages and you’ll develop a list of solutions to address the issue.

Just keep in mind, your client or employer is looking for the single best solution that solves their problem. Even if you present multiple options, you are on the hook to recommend the most attractive one.

Let’s say you identify excessive price discounting as a driver for the decline in profitability, and salespeople use discounts far more than they should to drive volume.

This leads to your conclusion: profitability can increase if the client can better manage the salespeople to hold off on discounts until they are truly necessary.

Present

Critical thinking is also useful when it comes to presenting your findings in an organized, clear way. Remember, this is about real-world results, not scoring an A- on a paper.

Senior executives have little time to analyze and interpret the information you give to them.

That’s your job.

You never want to dump mounds of information on senior executives, yet this is what young professionals are prone to do (“Look at all the analysis I did, isn’t it great?”)

Instead, you want to use your critical thinking skills and The Pyramid Principle to craft a compelling case for why senior executives should act on your recommendation.

Ultimately, senior leaders will make the final call. Sometimes they’ll go with your recommendation, sometimes they won’t. All you can do is communicate with clarity, recommend with rigor, and defend with data.

Evaluate

Once the client has decided on your recommendation, you have to measure the results. You need to tell what’s working and what’s not, and then to make adjustments as you go.

The good news is that perfection is not needed, if you can fail fast and in small amounts.

The beauty of critical thinking and a well-crafted message is that even if you are wrong, you can defend your recommendations and more easily refine them and rapidly iterate to achieve the desired result.

In the case of declining profitability, let’s imagine that your leader went with your top recommendation.

Salespeople are now restrained from excessive discounting. Your job is to collect data on whether this course of action actually improves profitability.

If it does, that’s terrific; you’ve done your job.

If it doesn’t, that’s okay too. You can incorporate the new data, adapt and tweak your recommendation as necessary.

How Critical Thinking Prevents Burnout

The above example shows how critical thinking delivers results. But what happens when you don’t use critical thinking?

It’s quite real, sometimes even for seasoned managers who make decisions based on gut feel, anecdotes, or groupthink. I watch far too many people make decisions on shifting sands of logic.

Ironically, people who eek by with mediocre critical thinking skills sometimes suffer the most. Sure, they initially climb the ranks, perhaps because their recommendations worked out, but they may ultimately pay a steep price:

Their mental, physical and emotional health.

Sounds extreme, but bear with me. You see, the stakes go up as you advance in an organization. What got you by as a junior analyst or individual contributor may not be sufficient at the next level.

The problems are more complex, the responsibilities are greater, and the opportunity cost of failure increases dramatically.

Without a solid foundation of critical thinking skills, not only do you risk being incorrect, the consequences of an incorrect decision increase as well. The more ambitious you are, the more likely this is to happen.

I know, because it happened to me early in my career. Armed with an engineering degree and a farmer’s work ethic, I went to Dallas to conquer the world. After a few years of early successes, I got to tackle the bigger challenges we all seek, and even talked my way into a reputable consulting firm.

However, it got harder to continue progressing, and my toolbox simply did not have all the tools needed to be successful. Working harder led to diminishing returns. What to do?

Fortunately, I am a lifelong student and problem solver, and tried to figure out what was missing, what makes a world-class consultant. I interviewed top consultants, read the highest regarded authors, and invested in learning the secrets of the temple.

High on that list of skills — critical thinking.

Isn’t it better to simply go to the right business school, and then waltz into a blue-chip strategy firm, where critical thinking is part of the training? Perhaps, but of course it is not that easy.

Even for those highly prepared, it is an ultra-competitive, highly selective crucible at each stage, with no guarantees even if you are brilliant. Also, many of us are simply not aware of these important facts during high school or even college, so that opportunity comes and goes before you can act on it.

Not to worry. Critical thinking, along with other consulting skills, can be learned. With practice, you can excel in these skills.

When you do, you look at the world with fresh eyes, full of possibilities. As you learn to think critically, those feelings of negative stress are converted to confidence and the positive stress of achievement and pushing your limits.

Critical thinking, along with other consulting skills, has made the difference for me, and proof that you can learn these skills now, regardless of your major, your current job, and where you are in your career.

Why Academia Is Failing Students

Our country’s learning system has traditionally been based on memorization, repetition, and task completion — can we say rote, anyone? Critical thinking, you’ll notice, is not on that list.

As a consultant or internal analyst, your clients demand more in-depth thinking that drives results.

Thankfully, forward-thinking colleges and universities, like Stanford, Indiana University, and the University of Texas (where I’m an adjunct professor) recognize this gap in students’ learning.

Much of this progress is focused on experiential learning, and team collaboration — both important skills that prepare students for the business world. However, critical thinking is not explicitly taught and practiced.

Why? Industry leaders are clamoring for it. Many classes claim to cover it, so schools mistakenly assume that students will somehow master this after being exposed to the idea in classes, and maybe even offer a reference guide.

The case method is covered in more schools now, though superficially in most cases. It is good to see case competitions on the rise, but at far too few schools, and too few programs.

Most graduates leave college as idea majors and mechanical thinkers, with the mistaken notion that this is the same as creative and critical thinking.

Unfortunately, they struggle in their ability to think through a real world problem and come to a logical conclusion that says, “I recommend we take this step, or steps, to fix the issue.”

In the world of consulting, this is what we do — we frame a real challenge that poses a threat to our clients. Then we offer them at least one, logical, rational, and well-thought out solution.

It’s a solution they can take action on immediately that will drive to a result.

This process isn’t optional. It’s required for engagement success. The way this gap in education plays out in the workforce is rarely pretty.

Why My Smartest Recruit Was My Worst Consultant

Derrick represents many young consultants.

The guy was quantitatively brilliant. His brain worked like it was powered by an advanced CPU. But colleagues and clients found him impossible to deal with.

Put simply: he confused people.

He dumped loads of data onto client’s desks, gave them too many options, and then told them to pick which one they preferred.

You can imagine how clients responded to that approach.

When I spoke with Derrick about my concerns over his lack of critical thinking prowess, he looked at me like a deer-in-the-headlights, sprinkled with a healthy dose of denial.

It’s a stare I see too often from technically-gifted but results-challenged consultants.

His head bobbed up and down as we spoke, but I knew he didn’t understand. I was right. Almost immediately, he returned to bombarding the clients with mounds of data.

Needless to say, he didn’t last long at our firm, or in the consulting profession.

It was a real shame too. He had the brain power and intellectual ability to achieve much more. His potential was wasted because he never learned how to make decisions.

He never learned critical thinking skills.

My Best Hire Had an Art Degree

If, like most of your peers, you came out of college without well-developed critical thinking skills, don’t despair.

You are not destined to go the way of Derrick, nor are you condemned to plateau your career prematurely.

Instead, you can follow the path of Libby.

Libby was a new hire to our firm, a music major who graduated from one of the Seven Sisters schools, a group of liberal arts colleges in the Northeast.

Compared to the rest of her cohort, people believed her education and degree was a handicap.

Right away, she struggled — a lot. She had difficulty getting staffed on client engagements, bounced from one internal project to another, and felt frustrated over her lack of progress at the company and mediocre performance scores.

In short, little about her new job was going right for Libby. Before she could complete her downward spiral, I invited her to join my team.

Almost instantly, I diagnosed Libby’s problem: the lack of critical thinking skills.

So, I taught her some concepts and gave her tools to get the left side of her brain firing. Critical thinking plus a healthy dose of Excel can go a long way.

Libby quickly made an impact, and began solving more complex problems for clients and supporting larger projects. She succeeded on her assignment, received client accolades, and this established a foundation for her future career success.

How To Develop Your Critical Thinking Skills

There was no magic, mystery or a sudden miracle that caused this transformation. In fact, Libby lacked the hard quantitative and analytic skills of her peers.

But she did have a proclivity towards notes, rhythms, and sound that gave her a unique perspective as she developed her critical thinking and analysis capabilities.

Plus, she was open to learning. All it took was a bit of guidance and direction and in no time, Libby’s mind became tuned to a virtuous cycle of analyze, interpret, present, and evaluate.

If you want to dive deeper and hone your critical thinking skills, I’ve written a thorough breakdown of the pillars of critical thinking.

It’s never too late to learn, or improve, your critical thinking skills.

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