Critical Thinking and Effective Problem Solving

How many times have we heard someone say, “Jack is smart but he has no common sense”? Or “Mary is bright, but lacks street smarts”? What are they really saying? I believe it is a lack of critical thinking and the ability to solve problems that is holding both Jack and Mary back in their work.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

According to The Foundation for Critical Thinking (, critical thinking is a set of information, belief generating, and processing skills. And, the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. And more importantly, critical thinking is not:

1. The mere acquisition and retention of information alone because critical thinking involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated.

2. The possession of a set of skills because it involves the continual use of them.

3. The use of those skills (“as an exercise”) without acceptance of their results.

In other words, critical thinking is the process of constant evaluation and application of available information, including analyzing your results. To me, it sounds a lot like another oft-employed term: evidence-based practice.

The Steps in Effective Problem-Solving

To correctly solve a problem, it is important to follow a series of steps. Many researchers refer to this as the problem-solving cycle, which includes developing strategies and organizing knowledge. While this cycle is portrayed sequentially as below, people rarely follow a rigid series of steps to find a solution. Instead, we often skip steps or even go back through steps multiple times until the desired solution is reached.

1. Identifying the Problem: While it may seem like an obvious step, accurately identifying the problem is not always as simple as it sounds. In some cases, people identify the wrong source of a problem or focus on a symptom, not the underlying root cause, and waste time and resources attempting to solve it.

2. Defining the Problem: Once identified, it is important to fully define the problem so that it can be solved.

3. Forming a Strategy: The next step is to develop a strategy to solve the problem. The approach used will vary depending upon the situation and the individual or team’s unique preferences.

4. Organizing Information: Before coming up with a solution, we need to first organize the available information. What do we know about the problem? What do we not know? The more information that is available, the better prepared we will be to come up with an accurate solution.

5. Allocating Resources: Of course, we don’t always have unlimited money, time, and other resources to solve a problem. Before you begin to solve a problem, you need to determine how high of a priority it is. If it is an important problem, it is probably worth allocating more resources to solving it. If, however, it is an unimportant problem, then you do not want to spend too much of your available resources coming up with a solution.

6. Monitoring Progress: Effective problem-solvers tend to monitor their progress as they work towards a solution. If they are not making good progress toward reaching their goal, they will reevaluate their approach or look for new strategies. This ability to adapt is important to successfully solving problems.

7. Evaluating the Results: After a solution has been reached, it is important to evaluate the results to determine if it is the best possible solution to the problem. This evaluation might be immediate, such as checking the results of a math problem to ensure the answer is correct, or it can be delayed, such as evaluating the success of a program after several months.

Frank Manfre



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Frank Manfre

Business consultant & coach w/ 35 years experience in leadership roles in for profit and nonprofit organizations focused on developing leaders & org health