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 that 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 steered towards ‘creating highly employable people’ they adapted methods and thinking common in the business world. A side note: If it weren’t so sad (and highly problematic), it would almost be funny that this trend took off just before businesses began to realize that many of exactly those methods were creating fundamental issues.

Companies relied (and still rely) heavily on standardization and neat processes which 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, there is one precondition to finding your own solutions: you have to truly understand the matter at hand. Whatever problem you are trying to solve, the better you understand it, the closer you get to a solution. This, however, is not what we are being trained to do.

There are other issues. Standardized methods train us to believe that every time a similar problem occurs, the same approach is going to work. As a result, we don’t properly analyse the new problem. We assume it’s just like the old one — and ignore that things might have changed in the meantime. Something that worked yesterday might not work today. Or we could come up with a better solution than last time around — if only we would care to look for it.

Back to my main point: If you look at our world 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 yearn for standard procedures. Even in my job, business consulting, I frequently met (and hired) people whose first impulse, when presented with a new case, was to ask for manuals, check-lists or other stuff you produce in order to create standards.

“Creating standards almost turned into a reflex”

Don’t get me wrong: Standards aren’t bad in and of themselves. They can be useful tools to avoid unnecessary redundancy. Some things you can standardize with reason: generally-speaking any repetitive task in a domain that doesn’t change a lot over time. What’s problematic, though, is that we often don’t properly analyse whether creating a standard is the right tool to deal 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, myself included. And that’s perfectly fine; as long as we stay aware of the underlying cause. 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 are really, really bad at teaching it. To the contrary: Following the standard is usually incentivized.

Standards don’t meet the requirement anymore

All of this might have been suboptimal in the past. But it worked reasonably well for the most part. Standards failed, but they didn’t do as quickly. Change progressed at a slower speed than today. Technology develops quicker than ever. The hyper-connectedness of our world creates a new level of complexity. Therefore, questioning what we do and how we do it should become second nature to us. Regularly challenging the assumptions which guide our actions should be instilled in people and systems alike.

This implies: Thinking critically needs to become a habit. And that takes training.

Critical thinking will become even more important due to technology. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence, more and more specialized knowledge-tasks will be performed by machines, to a significant degree. Computers are really good at storing and analyzing information. Way better than we (as in: human beings) are.

But they are worse at applying this data to come up new, creative solutions (at least to this day). They are bad at getting to the root of the matter. Humans are better at those things. We should focus on them. But we don’t. That’s why I find it amazingly naive what we do in schools and universities: teaching for tests. Tests which are multiple-choice information queries. Information that everyone with a smartphone can access within seconds. What they should focus on instead: The application of said information. Which, again, requires 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, companies (even the traditional, slow ones) are way more adaptive. Thus, I believe companies are the environments which are structurally best equipped to act on the issue.

So, how can companies foster critical thinking? I won’t provide a conclusive list. For one, I probably couldn’t even if I tried. But also I don’t want to. It would be inconsistent as such a list would discourage you from thinking for yourself. Hence, I’ll simply share a few thoughts with you:

First, companies need to create an environment that stimulates critical thinking. It starts with coaching (some might call it ‘leadership’). Often 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: By ‘freeing’ all the other people from making decisions, you also free them from ‘the burden of thinking’. At first, this leads to resignation and frustration. But it get’s worse: Once people get accustomed to not having a say, it creates an unwillingness to think and make decisions. Just as with thinking, making decisions is tough too. Not having to do so can be kind of comforting. Alas, life consists of making decisions.

Luckily, and against popular believe, it doesn’t take 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. Regardless of the job level at the office, all people make many decisions in the other parts of their lives. Good and bad decisions. Just like 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. 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 it trains you to think.

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