Critical Thinking is Necessary

What do you think of when you are challenged by circumstance? Do you think of the danger or the opportunity?

John F Kennedy is quoted as saying: “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis’. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity”.

The message Kennedy was giving was that whenever we faced a crisis we should think CRISIS = DANGER + OPPORTUNITY.

Whilst his speech made good copy in its day and is retold innumerable times today via the internet as an inspiring guide to our thinking, the brush strokes do not mean what Kennedy said.

The mandarin word for crisis,”wēijī” is indeed made up of two words which together mean crisis. However, although the wēi means danger, the jī means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Therefore, wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis. It is a dangerous moment in time. It is a time when things can go horribly wrong and one should be thinking of how to avert the danger at this time.

A crisis is not a time to be looking at the opportunity. It is the time to take steps which may even significantly reduce our future opportunity to avert oblivion now. The thinking behind CRISIS = DANGER + OPPORTUNITY is a romantically inspiring thought, but it is actually not good advice. Perhaps it seems so for those amongst us wed to always taking high risks.

How many other times do well intentioned repetition of falsehoods guide our thinking?

I addressed a conference dealing with change in the public service of NSW recently, on the research we have conducted on change programmes and what makes them fail and what makes them succeed. I asked the audience what they thought was the nominal failure rate of change management projects. Seventy percent came the chorus reply.

Unfortunately, that is not true either. It would appear that in 1993, Hamer and Champy estimated that only 30% of business re-engineering projects succeeded. In 2008, Kotter also made an observation in his time that of 100 companies he worked with, only 30% succeeded. In 2009, McKinsey completed a study and found a 68% success rate of change management projects against specific criteria. In 2013, The Economist completed a study with different criteria to find a 56% success rate for change management projects. Our qualitative study against the criterion of timeliness, return on investment and specified outcomes, found a 68% success rate.

If a 30% success rate was true for change management projects, why would anybody in their right mind take on a re-engineering, restructuring, cultural realignment or systems change project? And yet, that is the number that is stuck in most people’s heads as being true. Does it colour their thinking? I guess so, but only the individuals themselves would know.

What I do know is that in business, as in life really, critical thinking is a great boost to your chances of success and that without it, the risk of failure rises dramatically.

Critical thinking is active thinking. It is not passively accepting everything you see and hear. To think critically, you should hear yourself asking questions about what you see and hear. You should find yourself evaluating, categorising and looking and finding patterns and relationships.

Critical thinking is not about being a cynic. As that television philosopher and comedian Stephen Colbert said: “Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it, because cynics don’t learn anything, because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us”.

Nor is it playing the “Devil’s advocate”. Whilst advocating the opposite as means of checking the veracity of an argument is a legitimate and useful analytical exercise, playing that role in every conversation is a lazy replacement for critical thinking.

Latching on to business concepts reported to have worked in other industries and organisations without critical examination of the thinking behind it and the comparison of business environments within which the concept works and your own business environment is lazy thinking.

As an example, I recall a client proclaiming to adopt the concept of best practice. Having spent two years of my previous life setting up a best practice know-how across ten sites to ensure that what was learned in one country could actually benefit another country’s operations, I knew what hard work it was within one organisation. I could not see that they were prepared for the hard slog of setting up a best practice capability across companies as they would have had to. Once the detail of defining measures and the methodology of measuring just as the very start of setting up a best practice capability was explained with examples, they soon abandoned the thought. Although, I must admit they still used the rhetoric associated with best practice to describe their singular initiatives.

To think critically it is necessary to:

  • Define problems as what actions are impacting on what outcomes and need to change if a preferred outcome is to be achieved
  • Assess what you see, hear and read for its veracity
  • Evaluate ideas, statements or evidence for their relevance, accuracy and completeness
  • Look for patterns, causations or justifications
  • Use theories or concepts and principles to explain and support an argument
  • Look for alternate causations and patterns to the conclusions you have made.

Thinking critically is not a nice to have in a business. It is a necessity.

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