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How to improve your team's critical thinking skills

Staff with strong critical thinking skills are more independent and make better calls. As a leader, you can measure and foster these skills in your existing teams.

Sep 06, 2023 • 8 Minute Read

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  • Engineering Leadership
  • Business
  • Professional Development
  • Team Development
  • Learning & Development

Hey there, leaders and innovators! If you've clicked on this article, you're probably aware that we're not in Kansas anymore. The dazzling world of AI has ushered in an age where images, articles, and even voice recordings can be manipulated to an uncanny degree. 

But fear not. While the digital realm poses challenges, it also offers us an opportunity to refine our human skills like critical thinking. Let’s explore how you can train your team to think critically and effectively in this brave, new world.

Understanding the critical thinking imperative

Before we delve into the how, let's briefly chat about the why. Critical thinking isn't just a buzzword; it's the bedrock of innovation and informed decision-making. It helps us discern fact from fiction, and in the AI era, there’s a lot more of the latter out there to deceive your teams

How a lack of critical thinking can impact your business

Imagine a beverage company named Beverage Innovations, Inc. This company has been renowned for its traditional sodas for decades. One day, Jane, the marketing manager, stumbles on a research report stating that spicy flavors are the next big trend in the food and beverage industry.

Jane, excited about the potential of introducing a new product, proposes the idea of Spicy Pop—a chili-flavored soda. Without much thought, the company pours millions into product development, marketing campaigns, and distribution. Spicy Pop hits the market with much fanfare, only to receive a lukewarm response. The majority of customers find the idea unappealing, and sales plummet. Unsold stock fills warehouses, and the company suffers significant financial losses.

Why did this happen? It all came down to a lack of critical thought at the individual, team, and organizational levels.

  • Lack of in-depth research: Jane relied on a single research report without considering its credibility. A critical thinker would've sought multiple sources or commissioned primary research to validate the claim.
  • Ignoring historical data: Beverage Innovations Inc. had decades of sales data and customer feedback. A thorough review might have indicated whether their customer base would be receptive to such a radical flavor.
  • Groupthink: Once Jane presented her idea with enthusiasm, the rest of the team fell prey to groupthink (i.e., when conformity in a group stifles independent thinking), not wanting to challenge or question the proposal.
  • Not piloting the product: Before a full-scale launch, a smaller test market release could've gauged actual customer reactions and provided valuable insights.

Critical thinking is not innate. It can be learned.

A common myth is that critical thinking is something people either have or don’t, which leads leaders to think it’s a matter of hiring the right people. However, this severely limits your options. You can foster a culture of creative thinking and cultivate this soft skill in your existing staff. 

Evaluate your team's critical thinking capabilities

Before you try to enhance critical thinking skills, you need to know where they are currently. One approach is to assess their critical thinking development using a four-tiered scale as proposed by Matt Plummer in Harvard Business Review: Execution, Synthesis, Recommendation, and Creation.

1. Execution level

Employees at this level can efficiently follow directives. While it may seem basic, this stage involves critical thinking elements like decision-making, problem-solving, and verbal reasoning. To determine if an individual is at this level, ask:

  • Do they consistently finish their tasks?

  • Are their tasks completed punctually?

  • Is the quality of their work up to or nearing your expectations?

2. Synthesis level

Employees at the synthesis level can discern and convey vital details, especially after significant discussions or meetings. To identify if someone is at this stage, consider:

  • Can they pinpoint the crucial takeaways?

  • Do they disregard irrelevant information?

  • Are they adept at gauging the significance of various insights?

  • Can they articulate key points concisely and clearly?

3. Recommendation level

At this level, employees can advocate for a specific approach after evaluating its strengths and weaknesses. Their suggestions are typically well grounded. To discern if a team member operates at this level, ask:

  • Do they offer solutions when posing questions rather than waiting for you to provide answers?

  • Are they aware of the potential pitfalls of their suggestions?

  • Do they weigh different options before finalizing a recommendation?

  • Are their suggestions rooted in logical and robust reasoning?

  • Are their sources valid?

4. Creation level

Employees at the creation level can devise strategies from scratch. For instance, if tasked with developing an onboarding process, they can independently create a comprehensive plan. To determine if someone is at this stage, consider:

  • Do they initiate valuable projects that aren't direct extensions of their current tasks?

  • Can they transform broad visions into actionable plans?

  • Are they skilled at finding solutions to ambiguous challenges you present?

How to create a culture of critical thinking

1. Ask open-ended questions

If you ask open-ended questions, team members need to go beyond simple answers and offer deeper thinking and reasoning, working those critical-thinking muscles. Some examples of open ended questions are:

  • What are the assumptions behind this idea?

  • How can we test your theory?

  • What are the pros and cons of this choice?

  • What other solutions or viewpoints could we consider?

  • How can we make this process or product better?

2. Engage in collaborative decision-making

Involve your team in decision-making processes. This boosts morale and ensures decisions are vetted through multiple perspectives. You can also use the opportunity to engage in team-based critical thinking exercises, such as:

Role reversal debates

Have team members argue a point they disagree with. It'll help them understand different perspectives and refine their argumentative skills.

Brainstorming sessions with a twist

During brainstorming, ask team members to list potential challenges or drawbacks of every idea. This ensures a holistic view of each proposal. You should also promote diverse teams, as they bring varied perspectives to the table. This diversity can challenge groupthink and stimulate critical discussions.

For some training videos on brainstorming and other useful methods, check out Milena Pajic’s course: “Creative Problem Solving and Decision Making Techniques.”

3. Encourage feedback 

Establish feedback loops within the team. Receiving feedback helps individuals understand where they might have overlooked details or been influenced by biases. Giving feedback helps refine your own understanding and articulation of issues.

Ask your staff to keep a list of some of the ways they think a project, department, or organization can be improved. Make sure you schedule time to regularly share these thoughts, then constructively vet those thoughts so they know you’re taking their ideas seriously.

Another tactic is to ask team members to share their opinions before you give yours so they don’t model their ideas after your ideas.

4. Reduce groupthink by fostering a safe environment for mistakes

Allow your team to make mistakes and learn from them. If they're afraid of repercussions, they might not venture outside the box or challenge prevailing notions.

5. Reward critical thinking

Recognize and reward team members who display exceptional critical thinking skills. This can motivate others to adopt similar habits.

6. Offer training sessions

Consider organizing workshops on critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies. Equip your team with the tools they need. Here are some additional methods that may be useful for your team to learn.

SWOT analysis

Commonly used in business contexts, SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. By analyzing these four aspects of any situation or decision, you can gain a holistic view and make informed choices. 

For training videos on SWOT Analysis, as well as other useful project-management techniques, check out Curtis Webb’s course: “Managing Strategy and Vision.”

Root cause analysis

Instead of just addressing surface-level issues, delve deeper to find the root cause of problems. Techniques like the "five whys" (asking "why?" repeatedly to drill down to the core reason) can be useful.

For more on Root cause analysis, check out this article by Asana: “Root cause analysis: Digging to find effective solutions.

7. Lead by example

Your team looks up to you. If they see you questioning, analyzing, and thinking critically, they're more likely to emulate those habits. Discuss your thought processes openly and show them the value of critical evaluation in real-time decision-making. 

8. Encourage continuous learning

Recommend learning courses, articles, and books from varied fields. Diverse reading and constant learning can lead to multifaceted thinking. Learning about AI is particularly useful in combating misinformation, because it helps your staff understand how it can occur.

We’ve written a dedicated article on critical thinking techniques that may be of value for your team to read: “Critical thinking and AI: How to tell what's fake and what's not.

9. Embrace tech, but with human intelligence

While AI presents challenges, it's also a boon. Use AI tools that help verify information but always remind your team that these tools are aids, not replacements, for human judgment.

Conclusion: Lighting the path ahead

Leadership in the age of AI isn't just about understanding algorithms; it's about nurturing human skills that machines can't replicate. By fostering a culture of critical thinking, you're preparing your team to discern fake images or misinformation and equipping them to be innovators, thinkers, and pioneers in a rapidly evolving digital landscape.

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Adam Ipsen

Adam I.

Adam is the resident editor of the Pluralsight blog and has spent the last 13 years writing about technology and software. He has helped design software for controlling airfield lighting at major airports, and has an avid interest in AI/ML and app design.

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