What about critical thinking?

This week I’m facilitating a workshop at the CIPD conference I submitted the presentation and materials a few weeks ago and now I’m looking at them to develop thinking I had then. (One of the issues of living in the VUCA world is that it’s very easy to forget things in past given the swirls of more things coming in).   Anyway, I’m relieved to see that I mention critical thinking and reflection as two of the necessary OD & D/change skills needed.

Critical thinking and reflection seem to me to be in short supply in many organisations.  In two forums last week I came across the puzzlement OD&D consultants feel when they realise that their clients are not interested in any ‘lessons learned’ discussion on projects. (See this article on organisational learning .  The consultants were equally puzzled by clients looking for ‘the answer’ when, in most cases, there isn’t one but several possible answers.  Each of these possible answers has pros and cons which require thoughtful discussion on what trade-offs to make in order to arrive at a wise choice given current understanding of the situation.  Sadly, the consultants said they didn’t feel that clients would invest time in this type of discussion, and several of the consultants said they wouldn’t feel confident challenging the client on this.

The question that came out of those forums was – how do we encourage critical thinking in organisational life?  It’s the right question to ask, I think.

I just read an article ‘Elon Musk is raising an important question about job titles:

‘This week, in a classic Muskian publicity stunt, Elon Musk, founder and CEO of Tesla, announced that he no longer had a job title at the electric-car manufacturer.

He had deleted his honorifics from his Tesla bio page, where he previously had been listed as chairman, product architect, and CEO, he said in a tweet . “I’m now the Nothing of Tesla. Seems fine so far,” he wrote.’

Many of us have heard of Elon Musk, seen reports of his tweets and behaviour, and formed an opinion of him.

In the same article reporting Musk’s action the author mentioned the Brightline Initiative’s Strategy@Work conference.  At this, Roger Martin outlined his view of several major shifts in the way we organize, or ought to organize, work.  ‘Let’s get rid of jobs,’ he told the audience, and instead give everyone a portfolio of projects.’ Someone in the audience asked Martin if this would just be a recipe for chaos.  ‘His response, in a nutshell: Companies already operate in chaos. They’re sprawling and multi-layered, communications break down between levels and departments, strategy becomes meaningless.’

Martin’s statement offers first, a challenge to the conventional idea of jobs (I’ve assumed a link to job descriptions and titles here, picking up on Musk’s action) and second makes a provocative point that companies operate in chaos.

It’s easy to respond to both Musk’s and Martin’s points with an immediate view, an opinion, or a soundbite response to either of these points. (See, for example, the responses to Musk’s tweet).

It’s much less easy to think, as the Foundation for Critical Thinking urges,  ‘open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, assumptions, implications, and practical consequences’.  It’s hard to explore open-mindedly Elon Musk or Roger Martin’s views if we cling on to our assumptions – the taken-for-granted beliefs about the world.

In their cases we might hold assumptions that job titles, and jobs/job descriptions matter, and that organisations are not chaotic.  As Stephen Brookfield says ‘Assumptions give meaning and purpose to who we are and what we do’.  He makes the point that we instinctively resist challenging our assumptions – ‘Who wants to clarify and question assumptions she or he has lived by for a substantial period of time, only to find they don’t make sense?’   (See also his article So exactly what is critical about critical reflection?)

In organisational life we are often busy leaping on or off burning platforms, looking across for blue oceans , trying to recolour ourselves teal and following north stars.   This activity not only doesn’t leave much time for critical thinking and reflection but also may well work against our own best long-term interests.

In his book ‘The Answer to How is Yes’ Peter Block shows that many standard solutions and improvement efforts, reinforced by most of the literature, keep people paralyzed. He ‘offers a new way of thinking about our actions that helps free us from being controlled by the bombardment of messages about how we should live and act’.

Both holding onto assumptions and jumping on bandwagons are blocks to critical thinking, and much of ‘normal life’ also omits critical thinking.  In the view of The Foundation for Critical Thinking, ‘much of our thinking, left to itself, is biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or downright prejudiced. Yet, the quality of our life and that of what we produce, make, or build depends precisely on the quality of our thought. Shoddy thinking is costly, both in money and in quality of life. Excellence in thought, however, must be systematically cultivated.’

Given the context in which key socio-economic and earth system trends are ‘going exponential – for better and worse’.  (See the UN Global Compact Project Breakthrough )  we can’t afford shoddy thinking, but even as we recognise this we seem unable to do anything about doing enough criticial thinking in day to day organisational life to bring the adaptability, responsiveness, creativity, innovation and resilience to handle the exponential, messy, complex, and ‘deep craziness’ that we’re now in.

For well argued reasons why much more critical thinking is essential, listen to a BBC radio programme where ‘Mariella Frostrup and a panel of expert contributors discuss the value of critical thinking and how to nurture it in children and young people’.

As the BBC programme says, there is evidence that critical thinking skills can be learned and developed and there are many routes to this.  The Foundation for Critical Thinking has a series of miniature guides to it as well as a number of related resources.  FutureLearn offers short, free on-line programme Logical and Critical Thinking,  Coursera has Mindware: Critical Thinking for the Information Age  Or rather than a coures, look at the five TED talks related to critical thinking.

Earlier this week a John Scharr quote dropped into my in-box.

“The future is not some place we are going, but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made. And the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”

We need deep critical thinking to create and make good paths.  Do we have enough critical thinking going on in our organisations?  If not, how do we get enough?  Let me know.

Image:  Critical Thinking, Ricardo Colugnatti


2 thoughts on “What about critical thinking?”

  1. Naomi,
    Please resent your last piece asking your questions on the viability of “agile”
    Love ❤️ you girl 👧

  2. Thanks Naomi, and this is one of the most amazing paragraphs in the annals of management writing, congrats:
    “In organisational life we are often busy leaping on or off burning platforms, looking across for blue oceans, trying to recolour ourselves teal and following north stars.   This activity not only doesn’t leave much time for critical thinking and reflection but also may well work against our own best long-term interests.”

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