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Critical Thinking for Business

John Dewy provided one of the most beautifully concise definitions of Critical Thinking,

‘The essence of critical thinking is suspended judgement; the essence of this suspense is inquiry to determine the nature of the problem before proceeding.’

In my role as an innovation consultant, I fully recognise the importance of critical thinking. Research now shows an increase in the perceived value of critical thinking in business, science and entrepreneurial settings, and of course, in relation to innovation. Personally, I am very happy to see a skill which I have always believed to be extremely valuable in any setting, gaining the recognition it deserves.

As a former lecturer in Critical Thinking and now as an innovation consultant and trainer, I use a number of exercises to help students and clients critically engage. Why is this important in business? Because, "Using a structured thinking process will actually save employees time in the long run because they avoid making mistakes such as jumping to the wrong conclusion or making a decision that others reject down the road." I am intent on developing skills that don’t just provide benefits specific to immediate subject matter, but to develop in learners the capacity to critically engage with any situation, helping to make the most of their own specialist knowledge.

One of my favourite exercises, and definitely a favourite of students and clients alike, either 1-2-1 or in smaller groups, I introduce a series of statements. Based on their position, often a gut response either agreeing with the statement or not, they were asked to provide as many reasons as they can to support their position. (I should preface this by saying, all opinions are at this point of the exercise valid and safe, this is a judgement free engagement.)

After each ideation sprint, the group/client is given an opportunity to voice their opinions. I then instruct them to now find as many reasons as possible to support the counter argument. And once again, they are expected to present their reasoning out loud.

By stating a belief out loud, we are in a sense concretising our position. There is always infinitely more pace and excitement presenting the first batch of reasons. After some probing and prompting questions, as is my role, the second set of offerings, counter to the initial response, is delivered with more measure and consideration. Clients don’t necessarily have to ‘like’ the points they are making but they do have to engage with the potential value of this uncomfortable position.

This process doesn’t just teach learners to think critically, it also teaches empathy, the value of reflection and leads to ‘outside the box thinking.’ The exercise forces you to go look outside of your own comfort zone, to consider alternative viewpoints, I personally call it ‘walking around a statement.’ Linked with other exercises, clients learn to accept ambiguity and uncertainty, to reason where necessary, to develop a capacity for recognizing bias and potential fallacies in their own thinking.

As mentioned above, clients don't necessarily like or agree with the points they raise, but it does help prepare the client for the possibility that alternative arguments will arise in meetings, negotiations, or strategising sessions. It forces objectivity and the removal of emotion when engaging with problems, or problem statements.

I generally use statements that are broad, for example, ‘Boxing should be banned.’ I invariably get a series of responses related to either the health benefits or the negative impact on health, that people experience as boxers, and of course statements on violence. After using some prompt questions, like, from what socioeconomic background would you presume the majority of boxers come from? What is the education level of boxers? Who might be the authority to enforce the banning of boxing? What effect might that ban have culturally, personally, economically... etc? Who currently makes most money from boxing, the boxers, the promoters, advertisers? Is an outright ban necessary or are there possibilities to tackle any negative implications of boxing? Should any body have the authority to ban something that effects nobody but the participant? And a multitude more besides.

Very often the learner will express that they hadn’t really thought of those points, some will help to reinforce their initial argument. My role is to continue questioning their position, no matter how well supported their argument is, and this becomes more difficult the better the client becomes at developing their skill for critical thinking. The learner develops the capacity to understand that providing a sound and logical basis for their reasoning will give them a greater strength in structuring statements in their work settings. It also helps the learner to troubleshoot through self-reflection. They won’t make unchecked statements that are easily undermined, leading to their following statements being less respected regardless of how accurate they might be.

According to Jen Lawrence, author of Engage the Fox: A Business Fable about Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team, (a handy intro to critical thinking in business) and a point I strongly agree with, ‘critical thinking helps employees gather all of the information required to analyze a situation, generate optimal solutions to a problem and get feedback from all the people involved in the situation.’

Who won’t benefit from that?

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