Critical Thinking: One Secret to Success

August 27, 2010

In my post, What Companies Really Want From Employees, I noted that one trait that we want from employees is resourcefulness. We want people who are able to deal with those difficult problems that confront us.

As a manager, do you have “go-to” people that you can count on to take on difficult tasks or issues? If so, the odds are these individuals have the traits and skills associated with critical thinking, one skill that is not necessarily ignored in the workplace, but rarely shows up as an explicit expectation.

Instead, critical thinking remains the secret weapon that differentiates the best from the rest. When it comes to developers, I’ve seen those who I regard as highly capable exhibit the traits and skill of someone who understands critical thinking, even if they don’t realize that they are applying critical thinking skills.

What is critical thinking?

Don’t let the word critical mislead you! People who are critical tend to be viewed as negative; don’t associate critical thinking with a negative process that simply tears down ideas in a cold, dispassionate way and offering nothing in return. When it comes to a defining critical thinking as a high-level, I like how Edward Glaser's identification of the key elements:
  1. An attitude of being disposed to consider in a thoughtful way the problems and subjects that come within the range of one's experiences.
  2. Knowledge of the methods of logical inquiry and reasoning.
  3. Some skill in applying those methods.
Like a lot of things, attitude – the desire and commitment – to approach problems and subjects in an intellectually disciplined way plays an important role. Good critical thinkers are also inquisitive by nature. They seek to be well-informed about their profession and they take pains to “get it right” (whatever “it” is at the moment), making sure that they fully understand the problem or issue at hand and that their decisions can be justified to the greatest extent possible. This translates into a combination of independent research and discussions where others’ views and reasons are explored.

Good critical thinkers take the full situation into account. They understand the long-term, strategic goals and objectives and balance those against the needs of the situation. If something will take a little longer yet move us further down our strategic path, these critical thinkers will recommend that route. Conversely, the demands of some situations require more of a, “Here’s what we can do now to get the customer over the hurdle right now, but we really should follow up with…” solution that good, aware critical thinkers will endorse.

The Delphi Report on critical thinking identified a core set of skills and sub-skills that are central to the concept of critical thinking. The experts who developed this list were articulating an ideal, so you don’t have to be proficient in all of the skills and sub-skills to be a good critical thinker.

Critical Thinking Cognitive Skills and Sub-Skills

Interpretation To comprehend and express the meaning or significance of a wide
variety of experiences, situations, data, events, judgments, conventions, beliefs, rules,
procedures or criteria.
Decoding Significance
Clarifying Meaning
Analysis To identify the intended and actual inferential relationships among
statements, questions, concepts, descriptions or other forms of representation intended to
express beliefs, judgments, experiences, reasons, information, or opinions.
Examining Ideas
Identifying Arguments
Analyzing Arguments
Evaluation To assess the credibility of statements or other representations which are
accounts or descriptions of a person's perception, experience, situation, judgment, belief,
or opinion; and to assess the logical strength of the actual or intend inferential relationships
among statements, descriptions, questions or other forms of representation.
Assessing Claims
Assessing Arguments
Inference To identify and secure elements needed to draw reasonable conclusions;
to form conjectures and hypotheses; to consider relevant information and to educe the
consequences flowing from data, statements, principles, evidence, judgments, beliefs,
opinions, concepts, descriptions, questions, or other forms of representation.
Querying Evidence
Conjecturing Alternatives
Drawing Conclusions
Explanation To state the results of one's reasoning; to justify that reasoning in terms
of the evidential, conceptual, methodological, criteriological and contextual considerations
upon which one's results were based; and to present one's reasoning in the form of cogent arguments.
Stating Results
Justifying Procedures
Presenting Arguments
Self-Regulation Self-consciously to monitor one's cognitive activities, the elements
used in those activities, and the results educed, particularly by applying skills in analysis and
evaluation to one's own inferential judgments with a view toward questioning, confirming,
validating, or correcting either one's reasoning or one's results.
Source: The Delphi Report, 1990 (c) 1990 Peter A. Facione and The California Academic Press [1998 printing]  

Critical thinking is an important skill, because it allows you to evaluate, explain, and re-examine your thinking. If you are worried about critical thinking being akin to “analysis paralysis,” don’t be. It is simply a disciplined approach that will reduce the risk of your acting on what could be a false premise. Critical thinking will take more time than jumping to a conclusion, but the investment is more than worth it.