Are we losing the ability to think critically?

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Quietly nestled away in the last two pages of the most recent MIT Sloane Management Review[1] is an opinion piece “The Lost Art of Thinking in Large Organisations”. It takes five minutes to read and is thought provoking as the author’s opinion is that many senior leaders reached their current position because they excel at getting things done. Further, the author contends this bias for action leaves many leaders inadequately equipped to think critically as they progress to more senior roles.

On reflection, in our experience with some leaders and particularly younger leaders with whom we work, we are seeing similar patterns emerging. The more senior roles that leaders take on the more they are required to think strategically and contribute strategic insights. As far back as David McClelland[2] the ability to think critically and apply ‘cause and effect’ thinking underpins achievement and delivering quality results. Ability to apply higher order thinking skills should be seen as an essential skill in order to be able to identify and capitalise on new opportunities.

So what might be contributing to the loss of this essential skill? Our hypothesis is that today younger leaders have changed because of a combination of teaching methods and the continuing expansion of technology, particularly search engines. Through search engines people are mastering “conceptual” learning, however what they are missing is “applied” learning, the ability to think critically about a problem, challenge or opportunity, and evaluate and implement the appropriate solution from the range of possibilities, not just implement an expedient solution.

If we want to promote real thinking and ensure these skills do not atrophy in our respective organisations there are a number of things we can do:

  • Recruit for thinking skills as much as specialist skills. Organisations today lean towards those with specialist skills or functions. In fact there is an emerging term called “unicorn” which for want of a better term is a ‘super specialist’. Unless critical thinking skills accompany the specialised skills the outcome is often a narrow focus which means the leader is unlikely to be able to think critically about the complexity and ambiguity of the situation let alone be able to see the big picture.
  • Encourage leaders to truly empower and delegate to others. Leaders today have to let go of control; doing so achieves two things – team and team members are provided with the autonomy and authority to get on with delivering what’s required, and the leader can use the time freed up to applied thinking about strategic situations.
  • Ensure leaders have a defined problem solving model they can apply. The right model encourages clear outcomes to be set and processes to be followed; it avoids expedient solutions that are often the result of ‘group think’. Group think can be valuable, and it can also hinder as the group often misses subtle cues and insights.
  • Encourage critical thinking from the bottom up. So much thinking is locked away in people lower down in organisations who never have the forums to apply and share their thinking. Many times I have had conversations with senior leaders who bemoan the fact that critical thinking is lacking. People who are educated and encouraged to think critically will challenge the status quo and question deeply, yet in reality the leader is paying ‘lip service’ as they don’t want to have to deal with the challenge, in fact they are looking for conformity.

Be it at the individual, team, or organisation level you become what you are thinking about – what are you thinking about?

Viventé Australia enables leaders and managers to create the conditions that allow their people to do their best work every day thus creating a powerful advantage: the synergy between people, leadership, management, and culture, produces performance that allows your business to achieve its outcomes.

[1] MIT Sloan Management Review Summer 2016 Page 96

[2] Achieving Society; David McClelland