Building Critical Thinking Muscle: An L&D Mandate

Last week, I was invited as a guest on PeopleMatters #TChat (Twitter chat) on the topic of developing critical thinking muscle within the organization and the role of learning and development. I was joined by Mahalaxmi R who is the CLO & Global Head Talent at Airtel and Rajesh Lele. It was fun contributing and learning a great deal in return from the Twitter HR community. Here are the highlights from the chat. (You can see more tweets at the storified version of the chat)

Q1: Why do you think Critical Thinking is an essential skill to be built across the organization in today’s context?

A1 Organization grows (or doesn’t) one decision at a time. Critical thinking is an enabler of effective decision making. – Tanmay Vora

A1. Helps in reducing risk in & raises quality of decision-making. Helps problem-definition & solving by testing assumptions. – Rajesh Lele

A1 It’s a VUCA world! Crucial decisions are needed to be taken at every level in the organization, everyday without much guidance – PearsonTalentLensInd

A1. The application of #CriticalThinking results in better decisions, fewer mistakes & improves d level of collaboration – Ester Martinez

A1. Today’s interconnected #VUCA world demands CT as a necessary competency. – Tanaz H Mulla

A1 Critical thinking skills are basic building blocks for higher level competencies like strategic thinking. – Tanmay Vora

Critical Thinking is identified as one of the core skills of 21st century workforce to deal with an evolving landscape. – Sahana Chattopadhyay

A1 Several important workplace competencies hinge on critical thinking – PearsonTalentLensInd

Q2:How can Critical Thinking be developed? Share interventions that work best to build Critical Thinking?

A2 Assessments are a good starting point – both for evaluating current competencies as well as when hiring talent. – Tanmay Vora

A2.“Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.” ~ Thomas Szasz –Develop courageous conversations – Rajesh Lele

A2 When you need quick strengthening of CT skills, selecting critical thinkers during hiring yields faster results  – Tanmay Vora

A2 Self Assessment and Development of Data driven approach are some of the tool to develop #CrticalThinkingAkanksha Mishra

A2 Having leaders in organization who are critical thinkers sets the right precedence for everyone to think critically – Tanmay Vora

A2. Developing Critical Thinking requires skills like reflection, assessing assumptions and biases, evaluating options. – Sahana Chattopadhyay

A2. Projects that bring divergent thoughts and multi stakeholders together =best way to learn. – MAHALAKSHMI R

A2 Case studies, Simulations, Summary of past business decisions Experience, if not forgotten, can be a guide to the future. – Gurpreet Bajaj

A2/2 Leaders to encourage others to voice their thinking. Ensure employees have the ability to get to an answer by solid reasoning – Gurpreet Bajaj

A2 Beyond training, experiential learning sessions & workshops involving problem solving, thinking and writing helps. – Tanmay Vora

Don’t forget traditional problem solving tools –5Why, TRIZ, etc & go beyond. Build a “love for solving problems” – Rajesh Lele

A2 Developing CriticalThinking needs practice to train the mind to think in a certain way. RED model helps – PearsonTalentLensInd

Q3. Who is the owner and stakeholders involved in this process of infusing Critical Thinking across the organization?

Critical Thinking is every corporate citizen’s responsibility. Begins at the individual’s desk. Institutional approach secondary. – Rajesh Lele

A3 Senior leaders of the organizations are the first stakeholders in creating the culture of critical thinking. – Tanmay Vora

Most orgs now anyways look for leaders who can connect the dots +build strategy that’s inclusive which is a clear case for CT – MAHALAKSHMI R

Everyone, it is part of organizational culture – Subir Chatterjee

a) Leadership to Demonstrate open culture to challenge status quo b) L&D to Drive c) People to be naturally inquisitive! – Gurpreet Bajaj

Managers, leaders & each individual. Managers as coaches. Individuals as self-driven learners. It’s a life skill everyone needs – Sahana Chattopadhyay

It is the leadership teams role. If all decisions are data driven and not people dependant then it will percolate – Gautam Ghosh

Anyone who decides in an org context is a stakeholder – esp. senior leadership and middle management – Tanmay Vora

Q4: What are the road blocks that L&D practitioners & Managers are likely to face in implementing these change intervention?

Danger in focus only on tool/ methodology without behavioral anchors in implementing critical thinking skills – Rajesh Lele

Biggest challenge: aligning every single decision making individual to the critical thinking agenda. – Tanmay Vora

Roadblocks in the form of established processes, drive for productivity/speed over quality, mindset of what worked in the past – Sahana Chattopadhyay

Biggest roadblock would be if CT becomes a HR agenda instead of biz demand – MAHALAKSHMI R

When obstacles arise, you change your direction to reach your goal, you do not change your decision to get there, Zig Ziglar – Ester Martinez

Failure to take real problems of the business in the intervention. #ActionLearning & real projects best teacher – Rajesh Lele

A4. Fixed Mindset is the biggest challenge. Leaders, by majority, have a bias towards action. CT hence lags behind – Tanaz H Mulla

A4 Over reliance on best practices and past experiences without aligning them to current context can be a major roadblock.Tanmay Vora

Managing resistance – Critical thinking isn’t easy and doesn’t come to everyone naturally. – Tanmay Vora

A4 a) Conflicting Cultural Hypocrisy- Open vs Closed; b)Training Program vs Change? c) Limited business grounding for mentoring CT – Gurpreet Bajaj

Q5. What are the benefits that organizations can derive from these training interventions?

A5 Better decisions and planning. Better problem solving. Improved analytical skills. – Tanmay Vora

Resilience and ability to deal with change, agility over rigidity, growth over fixed mindset when #criticalthinking is adopted. – Sahana Chattopadhyay

Thinkers at all levels; Empowered and engaged employees who can see their impact on bottom line,Transparency,Respect,Innovation – Gurpreet Bajaj

Sustained biz success due to a.Well thought through strategy. b. Higher thought diversity & inclusion c. Long term view – MAHALAKSHMI R

A5 An organization with critical thinkers is likely to be more collaborative, strategic, innovative, make better decisions & grow well. – PearsonTalentLensInd

Critical thinking and creative problem solving are intricately linked – drivers of innovation. – Tanmay Vora

This is the reason why I love tweet chats – in just about 30 minutes of time, so many diverse perspectives came to the fore from equally diverse participants – talk about the power of community in learning!


Also read: My article series on critical thinking at Pearson TalentLens Blog.  

Dealing With Analysis Paralysis Versus Death by Instinct

When it comes to decision making, there are two extremes.

First one is analysis paralysis. Large organizations, multiple layers of management and risk averse culture breeds over analysis of facts, data and information before making a decision. Too much analysis paralyzes progress. Even when progress is made, it is often reactive and slow.

Analysis paralysis is a sign of over-management and is, quite clearly, a huge waste in many organizations large and small.  Analysis, reflection and sufficient critical thinking is definitely required to make better informed decisions. It provides direction to the process of decision making. But when search for direction stalls forward movement, it is a waste. In a constantly changing and fast environment, analysis paralysis can be a real disabler.

The other extreme is death by instinct. At this end of the spectrum, decisions are taken on the fly, instinctively without any systematic study or thinking. Any failure, small or big, is a huge waste of time, energy and efforts.

We need a balance between these two extremes. Between the rational and the emotional.

We need a system where internal checks ensure that folks think through their ideas before deciding.

We need just enough analysis to have all information at hand to avoid major disasters.

Once we decide based on just enough analysis, we need short bursts of implementation – pilot runs may be, to gain early feedback on the decision.

We then need constant loop of diagnosis and realignment of our approaches.

Managing anything is never a binary process but often something that swings between the two extremes. The key is to strike a balance and draw a line between the two depending on problem at hand and the context of the decision.


In the Pic: Shooting the empty beer bottles, Kufri, Shimla, India – via my photostream at Flickr.

Five-Why Technique for Problem Solving and Decision Making

In pursuit of improvement, it is very important to get to the root-cause. If you don’t know “why” an improvement is needed – you won’t improve in the right areas.

“Why” should come before “what”, “how” and “when” because “why” clarifies the direction. The hallmark of a learning organization is that they ask “why” more often than others.

It is crucial to ask right questions and get to the core – be it a decision making process or getting to the root causes.

I read about “Five Why” technique long back – but practiced it recently. According to Wikipedia:

The technique was originally developed by Sakichi Toyoda and was later used within Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of their manufacturing methodologies. It is a critical component of problem solving training delivered as part of the induction into the Toyota Production System.

Real problems are like onions – layered and not always easy to find. “Five Why” is a great method to uncover each layer and get deeper into actual reasons for failures/defects.

You can use “Five Why” technique in a number of ways:

  • You can define your career goal and ask “Why do I want to achieve this goal?” – whatever the answer, ask a "why” again. Check if those are the right reasons.
  • When someone from your team suggests an improvement, ask “Why is this improvement needed?” and then repeat why for 5 times.
  • When you encounter a problem in your operations, you can ask “Why did this problem occur?” and then dig deeper with five why’s.
  • Five Why can be used for assessment of our decisions (self-analysis) and is also a great tool to interview people to find facts.

Objectivity is important to ensure that you focus on “why” and not “who” – else it turns into a blame game. The great thing about this simple tool is that it does not require any sophisticated tools or software. It is easy – and can lead to lot of common sense thinking. Used consistently, it can also lead to new ways of thinking.

So the next time you struggle with a problem or decision-making process – you know what to do!

Have a great start into the week!

P.S: You might also like reading a two part post “On Decision Making and ‘Elephantine’ Way of Doing it. (Read Part 1 and Part 2)

On Decision Making and ‘Elephantine’ way of doing it – II

In my earlier post today, I wrote about decision making in general and “elephantine” way of decision making where I shared a short story of a tamed elephant. The subject did not leave my brain for the entire day and my mind pushed me to think a little further on it – dig a little more and find something deeper than the explicit lessons mentioned in the earlier post.

Ultimately, I could relate this topic to the discussion we had with our mentor – Prof. M. S. Pillai during a Management Development Programme on breaking mental barriers.

He told us a very interesting story about a circus lion – who was so tamed and trained to follow pre-decided instructions that he never knew what his real strenghts were as a Lion. He even din’t know that he was considered King of the Jungle. His mental programming (result of circus training) did not allow him to think that way.

One day when he was left in a jungle where real lions lived – this tamed lion started running fiercely when he saw other lions moving freely around. Gripped in fear, he ran for hours togather and finally got exhausted. He was thirsty and went to a pond to drink some water. While drinking water, when he saw his face being reflected on water surface, he realized that he is no different from the actual lion – he realized that he is as powerful as any other lion is. All his fears faded away and he realized his potential.

Pillai Sir (as we fondly called him during the MDP) is the founder of Sadhana Center of Management and Leadership Development in Pune, India.  On his organization’s website, he writes:

“It is easier to break a metal chain. But breaking the mental one is a tough task. Although in the open, it is imprisoned. Walking free is not breaking free.”

This means decision making is largely governed by mental programming (result of our education, past experiences) and our ability to see ourselves beyond our mental frame and limitations.

I continue to think further on this – and that should hopefully result in another blog post! Till that time, I leave you with these thoughts to ponder upon.

Happy thinking!

On Decision Making and ‘Elephantine’ way of doing it

Decision making is one of the key personal/organizational skills – for decisions shape our futures. While thinking about this, I realized that the speed of making a decision is directly proportional to your desire to get to something. If you are not very keen about something, decision making will be a slower process.

A few more insights on this were:

  • Every decision is a risk – since decisions are based on “just enough” information and not “all” information. “Just enough” is information that enables to arrive at a logical conclusion.
    Gut feeling still plays a very important role in decision making.
  • Refusing to take a decision till you have “all” information is a bad idea – it just hampers progress – especially when market is competitive and volatile.
  • Taking decision only on gut feeling is sure way to fail – decisions need to be supported by reasoning and logic.

In this context, it was interesting to read a management story (though it is an old one) on Elephantine Decision Making – I read it earlier and read it again today at Management Stories Blog. Here it goes –

A circus keeps a baby elephant from running away by chaining it to a stake. When the animal pulls at the chain the cuff chafes its leg, and the baby elephant concludes that to avoid pain it is best to stay put.

But when the elephant grows up, the circus still chains it to the same small stake. The mature elephant could now pull the stake out of the ground like a toothpick, but the elephant remembers the pain and is too dumb to use the new set of facts—how circumstances have changed. The tiny stake keeps a two-ton elephant at bay just as effectively as it did the baby.

Many executives are too dependent on old facts, on outmoded conventions, or are still basing decisions on what worked twenty years ago. This is elephantine decision making.

In my career span – I have seen numerous people who are victims of elephantine decision making. This generally happens when:

  • One strongly holds on to past experience and what worked for them (e.g. When I was in XYZ company I did this and it worked – or I did that and it didn’t work)
  • One does not keep his/her eyes/ears open enough for new ideas to come in. Business climate changes, market situations change and if you are not adaptive/open to these, you are bound to take decisions based on your limited knowledge. Ignorance, in this case, is not necessarily blissful.
  • One is not connected – to right resources and right people. Reading contemporary material, keeping your eyes and ears open and connecting/networking to people is very very essential to break barriers of old thoughts and gain new insights. Unlearning and relearning has to be a constant process.

I have also seen people who are aware, connected and still fall prey to elephantine decision making just because they cannot come out of their mental comfort zone of what worked for them in past.

Decisions are difficult to make – so is the process to arrive at a sound decision.