One of the most important skills underlying a successful business career is, in my estimation, the ability to think critically. While I think it’s fairly obvious why critical thinking is important (i.e., better decision making), I’m often surprised by how poorly many many executives do it.
I make a distinction between critical thinkers and critics. I don’t subscribe to the management maxim “never raise a problem unless you have a proposed solution” for several reasons:
- Some big, hairy problems don’t have obvious solutions and thus may never get discussed
- The maxim encourages the submission of contrived solutions in order to avoid getting blasted for not proposing one
- Some people may be in a perfect position to spot problems but have no idea how to fix them (e.g., the valet at a restaurant may overhear numerous complaints about the vichyssoise, but isn’t about to tell the chef how to fix it).
But the intent of the maxim isn’t all wrong. Nobody wants to work with a whiner who complains all day about the organization’s problems.
I make a distinction between (1) critic, a person who criticizes everything, generally without proposed solutions, and (2) critical thinker, a person who attacks ideas in the spirit of making them better, and who can hold both sides of an argument in their head at once,
I think I’m a pretty good critical thinker. But on the other hand maybe not. (Hint: joke.)
At one point, I had a boss who loved to stop me in meetings and say: “Dave, you’re arguing with yourself.” I think he viewed that tendency as a weakness that wasted time in the meeting. I viewed it as a strength. I sometimes think I should have replied: well, I need to argue with someone who can hold their own against me, boss.” (Yes, that’s another joke.)
Here’s a quick, one-question test to help you determine if you’re a critical thinker or a critic: do you attack your own ideas as well as those of others?
Critics attack other people’s ideas but not their own. Critical thinkers attach everyone’s ideas, especially their own. For certain disciplines (e.g., marketing positioning) one of my primary tests is not to examine the substance of a proposal, but instead to examine the critical thinking in the process that led to it:
- How many other taglines did you think of?
- Why didn’t you pick tagline number three?
- Did you consider taglines based on the higher-level notion of satisfaction?
- What’s the argument against the tagline you’re proposing?
- What are the direct and indirect competitors taglines and their relative strengths and weaknesses?
As David Ogilvy once said: “good writing is slavery” (see page 33 of Ogilvy on Advertising). So is good positioning. And it comes from critical thinking and plenty of it.
Here’s another test to see if you’re a critical thinker: can you articulate the other side of your argument so well that folks who support it would hire you to do so? If not, then you’ve not really understood it. You’ve not really thought critically. You’ve looked at the flip-side superficially and dismissed it.
Here’s a third test, which may sound a bit obsessive: do you constantly worry that you’re not critical thinking? That you’re somehow trapped so in the box that you can’t see there is a box? If so, I think that’s a very good sign.
The other thing that sometimes impedes critical thinking is experience. Many times I’ve seen executives just hit rewind/play on business ideas. “Well this worked at (Oracle, SAP, Cadence, IBM) so it’s going to work here.”
But will it? Are we actually in the same situation as Oracle, SAP, Cadence, or IBM was when the idea worked?
It’s amazing how many people fall into that trap. The other big experience trap is false knowledge. Example: ” I know that great salespeople always have something to prove.”
“How do you know that?” I often ask. Answers I receive include:
- “Well, [indignantly] I’ve been at this 20 years and it’s true of every great salesperson I’ve ever seen.” Response: did every great salesperson you’ve worked with also have a belly button? This reminds me of Jim Collins’s observation in Good to Great that all great companies have buildings. So do all bad ones. You should be looking for what differentiates good salespeople/companies from bad ones, not just for commonalities among the good ones.
- “Well, Mr. Bob, the greatest sales VP I’ve ever seen, said it was true.”
As the old saw goes: it ain’t what you don’t know that will hurt you, it’s what you know that ain’t so. The fact is most successful people have no idea why they have been successful. They may have risen early. They may have shook 100 hands a day. They may carried a rabbit’s foot. And they may have been quite successful. But for each billionaire early riser I can find scores of early-risers / 100-hand-shakers / rabbit’s-foot-carriers, who aren’t.
What’s the solution to avoid these experience traps? Critical thinking.
By the way, how do I know that all of above is true? I don’t. I think it is. There is some science behind a few of the views (e.g., Russo’s books and similar ones). But in the end it’s just my opinion.