The Importance Of Critical Thinking. And Why Companies Should Cultivate It.

Many of our current systems train us to function well. It starts at school, continues at university and goes on at (most) companies. However, as I’m going to argue in this piece, what we actually need most nowadays are the capability and willingness to think critically. This, I believe, holds true for our world in general and for business in particular.

First, let me describe what I mean when I say we are being trained to function well. In schools, for instance, we saw the rise of standardized testing during the last decade or so. As the educational systems were increasingly directed towards ‘creating highly employable people’ they adapted methods and thinking that was common in the business world. A side note: If it weren’t that sad (and highly problematic, as I’m going to show) it would almost be funny that it happened just before businesses started to realize that many of exactly those methods were creating fundamental issues. In companies we relied (and still rely) heavily on standardization and neat processes every employee is expected to follow: “Solve your problem with these seven steps”. Today’s media is a huge fan of listicles. I recently ranted about it on Twitter:

All three are examples of the same underlying thinking: As we crave for (pseudo) efficiency we teach people that following the protocol will lead to the intended results. At the same time we are also assuming, probably unconsciously, that people are either unwilling or — bluntly — too stupid to come up with their own ways. Of course, finding your own solutions has one condition: To really, deeply understand the matter at hand. Whatever the problem you are trying to solve is: as soon as you properly understand it, you will be able to come up with a solution. This, however, is not what we are being trained to do.

Of course, there are a lot of other issues that are well-known. For instance, by standardizing our approaches we are being trained to believe that every time a similar problem occurs, the same method is going to work. In doing so, you likely don’t properly analyse the new problem — again assuming it is just like the old one — and ignore that things might have changed in the meantime. Only because something worked yesterday it might either not work at all today or you could come up with a better solution than last time if you would care to do so. For example, new tools might exist that you didn’t know last time around.

Back to my main point: If you look at the world we have today, you are going to find many examples that underscore my point. We systematically teach people to follow standard procedures. This, in turn, results in people who request standard procedures. Even in my job, business consulting, I frequently met (and hired) people who’s first impulse, when presented with a new case, was to request things like manuals, check-lists and other stuff you produce in order to create standards.

“Creating standards almost turned into a reflex”

Now, don’t get me wrong: Standards are not bad in and of themselves. They can be useful tools to avoid redundancy where it’s not necessary. Furthermore, some things offer themselves more easily to standardization than others. Everything that is highly repetitive, repeatable and doesn’t change a lot over time. What makes it problematic though — see my former argument — is that we often don’t properly analyse whether standard creation is the right tool for dealing with the issue at hand. Creating standards became a standard itself. Thus, we mistake one thing for another and implement standards almost as a reflex.

The thing is: I get it. Whenever you can rely on a ‘tried and proven’ method, it makes life a lot easier. Because coming up with one yourself is tough. It demands a lot of focus, thinking and mental energy to do so. Everybody uses routines and standards, including me. And that’s okay, as long as we keep aware of the underlying cause we created it for. We should regularly question if our standard/routine is still the best solution and remain willing to change it. That is, we need to avoid auto-piloting and naively following our rules. Alas, we often don’t. Not as individuals and not as organizations. It’s a point well-known by psychologists.

The good news is: We can work on this skill. The bad news: Our systems, as I said before, are really, really bad at teaching us that.

Standards Don’t Meet the Requirement Anymore

All of this might have been suboptimal in the world of the past. But at least it worked decently most of the time. Standards failed, but they didn’t do as quickly. Because the world changed a lot slower than it does nowadays. Technology develops quicker than ever. The hyper-connectedness of our world creates a new degree of complexity. Therefore, questioning what we do and how we do it should become second nature to us. Challenging the assumptions based on which we operate on a regular basis should be instilled in people and systems alike.

This implies: Thinking critically needs to become a habit. And we need to be trained to do so.

There is another force that will make critical thinking even more important for human beings: Technology. I’m talking about automation, artificial intelligence and a world in which even specialized knowledge-work can already today, to a significant degree, be performed by machines more efficiently. Computers are really good at storing and analyzing information. They are way better than we (as in: human beings) are.

What they, at least to this day, are worse at, is applying this data to new, creative solutions. They are bad at getting to the core of things. Because humans are better at those things, we should focus on them. For that exact reason I find it amazingly naive that what we do in schools and universities is teaching for tests — tests which are multiple-choice queries of information. Information, that everybody with a smartphone (thus basically everybody) can access within seconds. What they should instead focus on: The application of said information. Which, again, demands people who can think critically.

Companies Can Foster Critical Thinking

Now, this has several consequences for our organizations and institutions. I will focus on what it means for businesses. For two reasons:

1. Business is my primary domain

2. Whereas implementing change in state institutions takes ages (see my point about standardization in schools), businesses, even the traditional, slow ones, are way more adaptive. Thus, I believe companies are the environments which are structurally best equipped for acting on the issue and functioning as a role model for the others.

I won’t (and maybe couldn’t) come up with a conclusive list. Also, I don’t want to. Because, in accordance with my general argument, it would free you from thinking for yourself. What I will do, however, is share with you in brief what comes to mind instantly:

First, companies need to create an environment that stimulates critical thinking. It starts with coaching (some might call it ‘leadership’). In many cases when my colleagues ask me for a standard, I motivate them to come up with their own solution. Those who worked in other companies before often look at me befuddled at first. However, they usually fare very well once they become accustomed to this mindset.

“Hierarchy is contrary to critical thinking”

The next step is to design your structure in a way that is well aligned with the goal. In using the concept of via negativa, I will tell you what doesn’t stimulate critical thinking: Hierarchy and particularly decision-making under its terms. The moment you put only a select few in a position that allows them to make decisions, you also create a side-effect: You ‘free’ all the other people from making decisions. At first, this leads to resignation and frustration. But even worse: Once people get accustomed to not having a say, it creates an unwillingness to make decisions. Just like I said before about thinking, I know that making decisions is tough. Not having to do so can be kind of comforting. Alas, life consists of making decisions. Luckily, against popular believe, it does not demand any kind of mythical leadership gene to make decisions.

There is very straight-forward evidence: Everybody who is an employee somewhere also has a live outside the company. Even if their organization didn’t hand them the key to make decisions there, they still make a lot of decisions in the other parts of their lives. For granted, these may be good or bad decisions. But guess what: The same applies to decisions made by managers as you can witness everyday by simply reading the business section of your favorite newspaper/website/whatever.

What else suppresses critical thinking in organizations?

  • A culture that doesn’t foster open discussion and (constructive) conflict
  • A lack of open, honest feedback
  • A tendency to look away from the real problems and only tackle the symptoms (maybe a chicken-and-egg problem)
  • Incentives that work against critical thinking. For instance: Over-emphasizing deadlines. Static goals that are agreed upon once and than never changed during the course of the year. Promotions based on good behavior (that is: obeying the rules)
  • And, of course, the implementation of standards for too many things

I’ll leave thinking about the via positiva to you. (Okay, I’ll at least give you a hint: There is a whole community, I call it #neworg movement, that is concerned with developing new approaches for organizations. Even though they might not be explicitly focused on critical thinking, their systems have it pretty much in their DNA. I wrote about this movement here. My piece on antifragile organizations contains some further input that might also be useful.)

I want to close with a very practical, third idea you can implement in your organization if you want to stimulate critical thinking: Become a writing organization. Few things train your thinking as much as writing. You have to develop a clear structure for your text. You need to care about being understood. You have to think about words and their true meaning. All this is immensely helpful. I’m not alone in that believe. Famously, Jeff Bezos banned Powerpoint from Amazon’s meetings. In an interview he once stated: “ When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences, complete paragraphs it forces a deeper clarity.”

I would add: And trains you to think.

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