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How Critical Thinking Is Essential to Transformation and Reducing Bias

What is your personal sphere of influence? As a team member, you influence your co-workers, customers, members, and management with your contributions. As a department manager, you influence a team of staff, members, customers, and others to achieve specific goals. As a member of the C Suite, your influence, informed and directed by a board and stakeholders, sweeps across the entire organization. And, as a CEO you set the course and the culture for the entire organization.

A CEO influences the operating culture, processes and people with the intention of extracting high performance at every level and, of course, towards a set of goals. That may be stating the obvious, but we find that many organizations – in the for-profit and nonprofit worlds — still operate in siloed structures where anyone’s influence is limited, majorly biased, without intelligence based on data, driven by personal professional goals or objectives… and even worse, repressed. Running a progressive organization ensures everyone has a seat at the table, is contributing objective, fact-based input, aiding in effective and productive problem solving and contributing to an organization in its transformation and/or pivot.

Unbiased Thinking

The issue and challenge facing most organizations, even more so in the uncharted dynamic business environment post-Covid, is the lack of individual and group critical thinking that sets aside the past and historical ways of operating and managing an organization, removes inherent biases and deep institutional knowledge. Instead, unbiased critical thinking reveals objective, data-based, evidence-based solutions, opportunities, advancements, adaptations and pivots that address today’s market needs and wants while enabling real transformational change.

We often find that in siloed, regimented cultures, behaviors focus on the tasks at hand-guided by a “checklist” that reflects the top-down direction and an unaddressed, broken or inefficient process. The result of a silo culture is a decrease in organizational efficiency and performance as the vertical “view” does not account for the dependencies with other processes or actions that contribute to an overall customer experience, an organizational goal or simply the financial bottom line. Organizational change remains hindered, the path to transformation compromised, and current or prospective customer needs and wants to go unfulfilled.

Back to the Future

Critical Thinking is a discipline that combines the Scientific Method with intuition in a rigorous inquiry into a range of solutions. The intellect in us can track critical thinking back to Plato and Socrates’ method of educating and motivating his students through a formal inquiry process. The pragmatist in us realizes the power of adapting Socratic dialogue principles into a system of critical thinking that elicits the strengths of informed individuals for the greater good.

Critical thinking is related to the ancient Greek skeptics that described themselves as investigators with the suspension of judgment. Ancient skepticism was a way of life devoted to inquiry. Critical thinking is foundational to ensuring your organization is relevant, sustainable and valuable to all stakeholders.

At its core, critical thinking represents the science and art of asking the right questions, removing bias, remaining open and objectively analyzing the problem, issue or situation, which results in effective, data and fact-based solutions, approaches and goals. It also requires the ability to think about the upstream and downstream impacts within and outside of an organization, beyond your immediate control. And to be effective, critical thinking is collaborative as it requires discussion and consideration among multiple stakeholders.

When critical thinking is not present or supported, organizations will encounter more costly errors, experience repeated mistakes and failed systems, be limited by inaction when action is needed, suffer inaccurate assumptions, and be restrained by the lack of anticipation and planning. Tipoff symptoms include the “it’s always been done this way” kind of thinking and the lack of metrics and analysis.

Subjectivity and Bias

Our day-to-day personal and professional agenda is filled with unconscious bias and subjectivity. Each of us as communicators and problem solvers brings our life experiences, knowledge and values to any situation and apply the sum of our parts in how we see the world.

As a communicator, we choose the words to use, information to include or omit, all with the intention of conveying the solution, situation or story we want to tell or which we believe is true reality. A “receiver,” those who are listening to us, bring their own life experiences, knowledge and values to the situation and apply those in interpreting what we are saying. As such, day to day, there is an inevitable gap in understanding.

Often, receivers don’t take the few moments needed to critically assess what was said, viewed, presented or shared to determine if it is biased or highly subjective. Furthermore, receivers may not ask the “right” questions, which would produce the right answers, which lead to the appropriate analysis and objective, sound, rational and effective solutions (and understanding).

As humans, we want to believe and trust what we hear at face value. As humans, we want to conserve energy (including mental energy). As a result, an organization’s ability to effectively transform, adapt, pivot and maintain responsivity to dynamic market changes and opportunities is limited by its ability to rationally assess issues, problems and situations in unbiased analysis.

Demystifying Critical Thinking

So, what exactly is critical thinking as it relates to organizational theory and practice? We define it as applying a rational, skeptical and unbiased analysis and evaluation of factual evidence. It is: “self-directed, self-disciplined, self-monitored and self-corrective thinking.” Open Learn explains, “Critical thinking encourages you to be constructive, by considering the strengths and weaknesses of a claim and different sides to an argument. It helps you to clarify points, encourages deeper thought, and allows you to determine whether information that you come across is accurate and reliable. We would add that it also aids in uncovering the bias, personal filters and institutional knowledge and practices that compromise decision-making. Critical thinking helps you to form your own objective judgment and drives research forward.

In the road to transformation, adaptation and pivoting to modern, actionable customer-centric business models. Critical thinking is, well, critical. Practicing this discipline helps overcome personal bias and ego-based decisions that are a common factor in any organizational culture.

Practicing Critical Thinking

What do critical thinkers do, exactly? They are curious. They rigorously question ideas and assumptions rather than accepting them at face value. They always seek to determine whether the ideas, arguments and findings represent the entire picture and see challenges from multiple perspectives. Most importantly, they are open to letting go of their egos; they are flexible, and open-minded to discovering that they may not have the right answers. Critical thinkers tend to be more self-reflective and can change their minds and opinions based on new information. They also tend to be more independent-minded, opposed to conventional thinkers.

A critical thinker does not only accumulate information well, but they also know how to use the information to deduce important facts and outcomes. By conceptualizing outcomes, critical thinkers are better at problem-solving than people who simply memorize information or promote claims that aren’t based in fact. Because of this, employers value critical thinking, especially in roles where preparing strategy is essential.

Critical thinking is a continuous learning process. The Scientific Method, which is inherently critical thinking, requires questioning of the status quo, conducting research, developing a hypothesis or ideas, testing the idea, review of the outcome and drawing conclusions. This can lead to innovations in processes and insights about the customer.

At 2040 we consider critical thinking as a life skill that is also important to any group or organizational construct that seeks to work towards a shared purpose and goal. Beyond business focus, adopting critical thinking as a part of daily life relates to interpersonal relationships, life management, work, assessing information, media and more.

What It’s Not

In essence, non-critical thinking means acceptance of the status quo with little to no attention as to why it is status quo. And while critical thinking can lead to innovation, it is not design thinking, which is more in the vein of using creativity to develop new products or solve problems that isn’t always fact-based. Design thinking is appropriate in certain situations where creative problem solving is needed, whereas critical thinking is inherent in all situations.

Critical Thinking and Business

Other experts in critical thinking agree, “Teaching people to think more deeply, solve problems better, communicate, collaborate, and innovate more effectively makes companies run a lot better. That bottom-line result is the goal of critical thinking.” It is key that “executives see the importance of critical thinking skills because the challenges companies face today are enormous: increasing global competition, emerging markets, rising energy costs, burgeoning health-care costs, technology, and a shifting political and economic landscape. Employees need to be able to think fast and act smart—often in situations that are complex, uncertain, and where no effective policy or procedure exists. That makes critical thinking a real necessity.”

Pitfalls to Critical Thinking

To implement the practice of critical thinking across an organization, it’s important to consider the barriers to critical thinking as they can be a death knell to a team or organization. Using this scientific/intuitive process can not only transform your organization, but it can also provide exceptional value to all your stakeholders. Peter Drucker summed it up with this observation, “The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The true dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.”

According to Open Learn, the common pitfalls are:

  • Misunderstanding. Due to language or cultural differences, a lack of awareness of the processes involved, or a misunderstanding that critical thinking means making negative comments
  • Reluctance to critique the status quo and consider alternative views, in other words, feeling out of your ‘comfort zone’ or fearful of being wrong.
  • Lack of detailed knowledge. Superficial knowledge; not having read deeply enough around the subject. unwarranted assumptions or lack of relevant information.
  • Wanting to know the answers without having to do the work.
  • Over-reliance on feelings or emotions.
  • Unconscious bias or selective perception.
  • Inability to be receptive to an idea or point of view that differs from your own.
  • Poor communication skills, apathy and lack of personal honesty.

Practicing Critical Thinking

Making an organization relevant in a complex digital marketplace is fraught with challenges … that can be transformed into opportunities. The key to unlocking the value to all stakeholders is having foresight: anticipating the future, not catching up to it. Easier said than done, however critical thinking can propel you into a problem-solving mode that reveals pathways and options to successful strategies and operations.

Here’s a simple seven-stage path forward in adopting critical thinking skills:

  1. Accept information only after evaluating it; uncover the objective truth.
  2. Consider the source; beware of fake news and biased information
  3. Ask lots of questions; what does it mean and why does it matter?
  4. Assess and evaluate data and reports; use credible resources to understand computation and calculation.
  5. Follow up with research; don’t get lazy and accept information at face value.
  6. Form an opinion; take a stand yet stay open-minded to re-evaluating or iterating changes.
  7. Reinforce a culture that rewards critical thinking. Celebrate successes and learn from failures. And encourage sharing of insight.

Mastering critical thinking is good for everyone in an organization and a key link bridging traditional business and organizational models to a dynamic, agile modern operation. At 2040, we work with organizations of all sizes and in all industries. What they have in common is the need and desire to transform their models and ensure relevancy to all their stakeholders. We guide clients in a transition from legacy thinking to critical thinking to unlock high performance, remain competitive and deliver products and services that are compelling, innovative and relevant.

Get in touch with us!

2040 helps organizations navigate the sea changes of finding their new normal. We offer actionable expertise in the strategy and operations of digital growth and engagement, empowering an empathetic workplace culture, strengthening your value proposition and driving revenues.  We’ve been in your shoes and we know what impedes transformation … and what unlocks it.

Onward and upward from the 2040 Team

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