Soft skills

Tom Chatfield’s seven key insights for building critical thinking

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Critical Thinking

By Dr. Tom Chatfield, writer, broadcaster and tech philosopher, member of the CrossKnowledge Faculty.

What does critical thinking mean in the business context? Above all, it means not taking things for granted. To think critically is to pause, and to think twice. It’s to re-examine underlying assumptions; to make reasoned arguments for what you think is going on; and to be prepared to change your mind in the light of new knowledge. Perhaps above all, in today’s climate of reliance upon and disruption by technology, it’s about becoming a critically engaged user of information systems—and a collaborator and communicator who understands both the potentials and the vulnerabilities of human intelligence in a machine age.

In a recent webinar, we discussed some of the themes of the critical thinking program I developed with them—as well as the questions that were on attendees’ minds. This post captures some of the themes from our discussion—and addresses some questions we didn’t have time to cover—in the form of seven key insights for building critical thinking into your life and business.

1. Allocate your attention wisely.

If you can’t give the things that matter your undivided attention, you can’t hope to work well, think well, or escape bias and short-term ideas. Similarly, if your culture is permanently preoccupied with speed at the expense of depth, you’ll never get the most out of either your people or the tools at their disposal.
In cognitive terms, this means batching tasks: aspiring towards focused blocks of action rather than constant flitting between projects. Set notifications to “pull” rather than “push”; allocate particular times of day for checking messages and participating in meetings; and keep other times free for focused work on a single topic, or for activities that lend themselves to creative problem-solving. Don’t make multi-tasking an end in itself. It’s okay to allow yourself periods of “continuous partial attention”—of deliberately flicking through different stimuli—so long you know why you’re doing this, and so long as you ensure that all your time doesn’t become the same kind of distracted semi-attending.

2. People need meaningful, actionable information.

While machines love big data, people need specific, actionable insights. What’s good for machines is the opposite of what’s good for people, in terms of getting the most out of human as well as digital resources: humans are brilliant creative and critical thinkers, but only if they’re given meaningfully contextualised information in manageable quantities.

3. Explain yourself.

I’m often asked what it means to avoid biased or flawed reasoning, and to identify it in others. There’s no simple answer, of course. But you can make yourself resistant to its worst effects by ensuring that you always show your working: that you embed in your culture the principle of explicitly setting out arguments and evidence, rather than relying upon evidence-free assertions and unexamined assumptions.
Faulty reasoning almost always involves flawed hidden assumptions: things you don’t even realise that you (or somebody else) has assumed. Don’t take claims at face values, and don’t assume that what you’re being told is all you need to know. Spell out each step in a line of reasoning, including the hidden logic that connects them. Is someone shooting the messenger rather than engaging with an idea? Is someone dismissing something simply because it hasn’t been done before? Embracing critical engagement, collectively, as a positive rather than a negative, is crucial to the rigour and alertness that makes individuals and organisations robust in the face of change.

4. Put ideas to a genuine test.

A test isn’t worth anything if it can’t be failed. The only way to escape confirmation bias is to put your ideas and theories to a meaningful test. So ask: what could prove me wrong? What do I need to know if I want to find out if a cherished idea actually makes sense? The essence of critical thinking is being prepared to think twice and to change your mind—to follow the facts where they lead. The most powerful three words in any business are: I don’t know. If you’re not spending time with questions you can’t yet answer then, by definition, you’re not learning.

5. Iterate, iterate, iterate.

Much of the above is a close fit for Agile methodologies, and their insistence upon evidence-based iteration. Agile approaches are extremely well-suited to small teams developing tech products, but it can be challenging to scale them up strategically, and to build their fundamental principles into an organisation’s leadership. Above all, I would urge businesses of all sizes to embrace the underlying principles of iteration, critically engaged retrospective analysis, and evidence-based adaptation—and not to be too dogmatic about the best methods for applying these principles at different scales.

6. Prioritise by importance and urgency.

One of the most useful things you can gain on a daily basis from thinking critically is a clearer prioritisation of your workload. What is important—and what is genuinely urgent? Important work deserves a high quality of consideration, focused attention, and shouldn’t be done too fast—because what matters is getting it right in the long term. Genuinely urgent tasks need to be got out of the way as soon as possible—and it’s only when you’ve done this that you’ll be able to create the kind of time and attention that important tasks demand. As for things that aren’t urgent or important—often, these don’t need to be done at all. Pause, think twice, review what’s in front of you. Don’t allow yourself to become busy by default, or for your inbox to turn into a to-do list written for you by other people.

7. Challenge default states.

In the end, most of the benefits of putting critical thinking at the heart of your culture echo involve pushing back against default states and assumptions. Rather than finding yourself struggling to keep up with endless tasks, overwhelming information and potentially contradictory assertions, an organisation that cultivates critical thinking is one where people actively question what matters most, why it matters, and what the best evidence does and doesn’t support.

In our digital age, machine systems can provide endless answers to almost any question; but it’s the job of people to come up with questions worth answering in the first place—and this is one area in which critical engagement and careful consideration are only going to get more important.