July 2012 | Strategy
Author of Winning Decisions and the new Brilliant Mistakes Paul Schoemaker likens critical thinking to physical fitness. When you’re “decision fit,” he says, you have good reflexes. You’re in the habit of understanding what works and what doesn’t, and that knowledge provides the basis for sound decisions. But equally important to being fit is knowing when you’re not. “You must be able to realize when conditions are not in your favor. When a golfer is injured, he changes his swing. When a business is going through a shake-up or a crisis, leadership similarly should know it may be at diminished capacity. It’s difficult to make good decisions at those times, not because you have lost your ability, but because conditions are different.”
Schoemaker, learning director of Critical Thinking: Real-World, Real-Time Decisions and research director of Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation, continues, “At one corporation, executives can’t sign a contract if they have traveled three time zones. This is very good. They know travel can result in diminished capacity and they mandate an adjustment. A lack of this kind of awareness can lead to poor critical thinking.
“It is at these times when even the best critical thinkers can fall prey to decision traps, such as substituting easy questions for hard ones. If someone tells you there are only two possible solutions, for example, a light bulb would normally go off. You would ask, what are we not seeing? What are we missing? You wouldn’t accept the problem as it is posed.”
What can you do when you find yourself in such a situation? Schoemaker suggests breaking it down into four key steps. “No matter the circumstances or how decision fit you are at the time, you can rely on good habits. If you have good critical thinking reflexes and you are familiar with these steps, you can avoid the decision traps that might otherwise plague you. The essence of critical thinking is to slow down the process, learn how to reframe problems, see beyond the familiar and focus on what is unique in any important decision situation. Here are four ways to hone these critical thinking skills:
Executives in Critical Thinking have told Schoemaker that the four-step process is time consuming. “That’s true,” he tells them. “Getting it right the first time does take time.”
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