14 March 2019
Critical Thinking For Navigating The New Normal
- a Dale Carnegie featured article
From the corporate world to the government sector, each day seems to bring another new trend to watch, unexpected news to deal with, or additional challenges to face.
A 2017 report by Deloitte on human capital trends suggests that government is “in the midst of an economic and social transformation, an accelerated rate of technological change, heightened career expectations, and new rules.” Governmental leaders are being urged to rewrite, retool, redefine, recalculate, redesign and replace current practices, processes, structures and standards. At times, it feels we are on the verge of being overwhelmed by waves of change, somehow expected to embrace each one as it breaks over us.
Too much information and too many decisions.
We live in a world that’s evolving at a mind-boggling pace, surrounded by so much information we can’t possibly consume it all. Studies suggest that the digital universe of information doubles every two years. More importantly, the volume of information and number of decisions we confront have real consequences, as scientists have discovered that humans can actually suffer from decision overload. In fact, being faced with many decisions, regardless of whether they are inconsequential or important, creates “neural fatigue”. Studies1 show participants who are required to make a number of unimportant decisions then show a lack of judgment about subsequent decisions. Our brains, it seems, are designed to handle a finite number of decisions per day, and beyond that limit our ability to make more is hindered, regardless of how important they are.
We must transform ourselves and our organizations.
That’s bad news for those of confronted daily with innumerable decisions, in an environment that seems to be changing so fast that it requires an ongoing willingness to not just adapt, but to transform ourselves and the organizations in which we work, if we hope to stay relevant.
Most Americans seem to agree. More than half (54%) of adults in the labor force say it will be absolutely essential for them to get training and develop new skills throughout their work life – to transform themselves over time – in order to keep up with changes in the workplace.2
Critical Thinking is an essential skill.
One of the most important of those skills is the ability to think critically. Critical thinking (CT) is a disciplined form of thinking that can be applied to any topic or problem. It requires the thinker to actively improve the quality of their own thinking by deliberately managing the process. Of course, all humans think, but generally we do so without consciously considering the act itself. Unfortunately, it’s also quite human for our unmonitored thinking to suffer from misperception, bias, preconception and distortion. Not only does the quality of our thinking impact the quality of our lives, it can be argued that critical thinking is the very foundation for transformational change, whether transformation of an individual, organization or agency.
For successful transformational change, where the future state is profoundly different from the current one, innovation and intelligent risk-taking along the way are key, and that makes critical thinking essential. Multiple studies3 have also found a positive correlation between critical thinking and transformational leadership, which is widely held to be the most effective type of leadership for effecting organizational change in a dynamic environment. But true organizational transformation requires the involvement of more than senior leaders. First, most decisions are best made at the level at which they will be implemented, taking advantage of the expertise and knowledge of those working directly on the problem. Secondly, real transformation can happen only when employees at every level adopt new mindsets and behaviors, and work together to create a new culture that both emerges from, and serves, the organization’s higher purpose. It’s not enough to have their full involvement, though, unless those at every level are also equipped to contribute successfully.
Done correctly, critical thinking enables effective problem-solving, enables creativity and supports rational decision-making. For all of these reasons, both employees and their leaders recognize its value. The Pew Research Center’s 2016 report on The State of American Jobs confirmed that nearly half of employed adults say critical thinking skills are extremely important in order to do their job.
Critical Thinking is lacking in the workplace.
At the same time, many in leadership roles point to a shortage of critical thinking skills in the workforce. A recent survey4 reported that hiring managers called out writing proficiency (44%) as the hard skill most commonly lacking and critical thinking/problem solving (60%) as the most commonly lacking soft skill from among those they'd like to see in recent graduates under consideration for employment. Those in the C-Suite agree; 44% of U.S. executives say many American workers are lacking crucial soft skills, including critical thinking, along with communication, creativity, and collaboration.5
So why don’t more of us approach training our brains to think well, in the same way many of us train the rest of our bodies? The first reason is that it's easy to think it’s not necessary. Without an impetus for reflection upon the act of thinking, it’s unlikely most people will do so. Even if we do, without a basic understanding of what constitutes quality thinking, it’s challenging to effectively evaluate our own.
A second reason for the lack of focus on critical thinking is that it isn’t an easy skill to teach. In contrast to many “hard skills” that can be learned through self-study, traditional coursework and even online, less tangible “soft skills”, including critical thinking, generally require a different kind of cultivation, with both instruction on the concepts, followed by disciplined practice over time in the real-world.
In essence, critical thinking involves five phases:
Problem identification, when the problem is clarified and its root causes determined, along with the vision for the ideal outcome.
Creative Thinking, during which possible solutions to the root causes are invented or identified.
Logical Analysis, which involves recognizing assumptions, drawing conclusions, and thoroughly evaluating options while controlling for biases.
Decision-Making, when the methods and criteria for deciding on the path forward are determined and risks are assessed
And finally, when the solution involves others as it inevitably does in any agency or organization, the Coordination/Implementation phase is when timeframes are set, roles clarified and expectations established.
Given the far-reaching consequences of many governmental decisions and policies, the importance of this capability within agencies and organizations can’t be overstated. Fortunately, there are things that leaders can do to encourage the development of critical thinking within their own workgroups.
Leaders can support Critical Thinking in their workgroups.
First and foremost, it’s vital that leaders themselves both develop and model critical thinking in themselves. This requires making a special effort to seek and consider input from others and discuss your decision-making process openly. It means recognizing good decisions and determining and highlighting how they were arrived at, and perhaps even more importantly, deconstructing the occasional bad decision as a learning opportunity to share with others.
Organizations should incorporate the elements of CT it into the design of projects and problem-solving processes. Especially as work is increasingly being accomplished by composites of traditional staff, artificial intelligence and crowd-sourcing, it’s helpful to think of the phases of CT and how each resource can best be incorporated. For instance, crowd-sourcing has been effectively used at various levels of government for problem identification, such as monitoring the state of hiking trails, or mapping the location of potholes. Expert agency staff takes over the CT process from there. In other types of projects, it’s the staff that formulates the precise problem and the creative thinking phase of CT that involves crowd-sourcing, as evidenced by the success of the federal government’s Challenge.gov platform which allows agencies to broadcast their challenges and citizens to propose solutions.
Develop the critical thinking skills of your employees, especially the younger ones. Retaining talent is a perennial challenge in the government sector. Millennial and Generation Z employees are particularly driven to learn new skills and achieve career milestones, and if they don’t find the opportunities they’re seeking with one company, they won’t hesitate to look elsewhere. Nearly half of employees under the age of 40 in our recent survey expect to be looking for a new job within the year.6 Helping younger hires develop skills they recognize to be valuable for their career advancement is an important part of any retention strategy.
Finally, it’s essential that leaders support their employees as they learn and apply new skills, including critical thinking. That means accepting that mistakes will sometimes be made, and helping employees work through them as learning experiences. Failure can be demoralizing to learners without encouragement from their leaders. Leaders who demonstrate confidence in employees’ ability to develop the skill are essential to move them toward mastery.
Without the power that comes from confidence in their own critical thinking abilities, employees can often feel relegated to just riding out the rough waves of change, rather than to help navigate their organizations through them. But when governmental employees are skilled at critical thinking, they can put forward well-considered recommendations to senior leaders and influence important decisions. Strong CT skills can enable staff to become proactive rather than reactive in the face of problems and move from possibilities to solutions. Agencies and organizations with strong critical thinking skills are prepared to navigate – and succeed in – the “new normal”.