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Encourage Critical Thinking

Far too often organizations are plagued with a mentality where the employees are not encouraged to think critically.  Mandates and directives come down from the top, and cannot be challenged.  Alternatively, the existing management may not entertain ideas and solutions provided by their subordinates because they may not be viewed as qualified enough to contribute.  In either case, if the organization does not encourage and foster an environment where the employee base thinks critically, many opportunities may be missed.  Ideas for improving existing processes and procedures may not be voiced, and inefficient operations may remain unimproved.  New initiatives or direction may not be questioned, even while as these decisions may be leading the organization away from its core values or good business models.  Essentially, managers need to be secure enough in their abilities to be able to have ideas criticized and not feel threatened, or to be able to adapt practices based on the critically thinking skills of the employees.

While reading a recent article (http://www.inc.com/paul-schoemaker/4-secrets-of-great-critical-thinkers.html) Paul Schoemaker states that in situations where there is more experience, it is harder to break from conventional mindsets.  I feel this is very true, and educational levels can also play into this characteristic.  Someone who has a PhD or master’s degree may be simply unwilling to listen to anyone who has a lower level of education.  In these cases, good ideas may be ignored due to the originator not seen as being “qualified” enough to have a good idea for the organization.  While educational levels and experience are indeed very beneficial to individuals and organizations, it is not the end-all, be-all of everything.  A good idea does not discriminate in regards to education and experience.  In many cases, a good idea originates from someone who has a different viewpoint or from outside an organization where ingrained thinking habits are prevalent.

The article documents a chain of pubs in the United Kingdom that experienced a loss in beer revenue.  Increased competition from restaurants and grocery stores was significant, and increases in alcohol taxes cut further into their revenue stream.  Commonly accepted responses would dictate the company market more and increase budgets for more promotion.  However, examining the problem in more detail, therefore not assuming normal tendencies, the problem was identified.  Consumer preferences and habits shifted away from pubs during the afternoon hours.  As a result the company decided to convert their pubs into family-friendly establishments during day hours.  After this change in mindset and operational characteristics, revenues were up 7.1% in 2010, and an additional 12.9% in 2011.  Organizations may be in a similar situation, and if the employee base cannot think critically, business will be lost, and in some cases, market share could diminish leading to obscurity.  Money spent for more marketing and promotions would not be very effective in dealing with changing preferences.

According to the article, management of any organization should apply four characteristics for fostering a healthy environment of critical thinkers.

1.  Slow Down

The fastest decision is not always the best one.  Management should not make a decision without properly arriving at multiple options to resolve a problem or decide on a project.  Spending extra time can allow for more informed decisions that will be better business decisions.   Having all levels contributing to this practice may slow down the final decision, but the arrived at decision will be more robust and informed, thus reducing unnecessary risk.

2.  Break from the Pack

Instead of relying on long established processes for decision making, challenge all assumptions for the organizations market.  An organization may produce a specific product that has only one intended use.  What if someone in the organization finds alternate uses for the product and sees potential revenue sources as a result?  Does this company foster an environment where employees are free to think critically and develop alternate uses for a product?  If so, potential revenue sources are lost and opportunities for this organization to build up market share will be missed.  Arm & Hammer is a perfect example.  Originally designed for baking, over the years, their baking soda product has been found to be quite useful for a multitude of purposes beyond the original intent.  If Arm & Hammer followed long held assumptions that it is only a baking product, a significant loss of revenue would have been experienced had they not embraced the alternate uses and marketed their baking soda product accordingly.  Failure to maintain critical thinking practices will most likely result in missed opportunities.  The very nature of the global economy allows for greater competition than before from overseas companies, and missed opportunities may be negatively impactful for a long period of time.

3.  Encourage Disagreement

Encourage respectful disagreements.  As a manager, the last thing I want to see on our staff is everyone being highly critical of each other, and feelings are hurt and disagreements turns personal in nature.  Staff attacks that are personal can be devastating to morale and teamwork.  On the opposite side, managers should also not want to be in a situation where everyone always agrees or does not engage in discussions.  This can easily result in group-think, and even smart individuals may simply go with the flow and not arrive at a good solution.  Healthy debates include taking a proposal and dissecting the details and see if there are different methods that can be better.  If other ideas are on the table, in-depth discussions can lead to more refined and better ideas.  The key for management of any organization is to be open-minded to any and all ideas, and to keep debates focused on ideas only, not individuals.  Through debate, insight can be discovered and alternate views can be developed.  At the end of the day, healthy debate of new ideas and proposals will lead to better idea with less negative risk.

4.  Engage with Mavericks

Organizations should embrace mavericks who buck trends and never accept commonly held assumptions.  These are the individuals will buck trends and allow for more innovative ideas to flow within the organization.  They are inherent critical thinkers and be more difficult to manage as a result.  A manager will be more challenged when these individuals are on a team, but the rewards of their input will greatly offset any associated problems.  Mavericks are different and offer different mindsets, and they are not always correct, but as a manager, their own point of view can be opened to more possibilities that before.

Organizations will significantly benefit from embracing critical thinking through all the ranks.  Applying these four critical thinking characteristics managers can learn to develop and foster a staff that will be more informed; more empowered, and will generally make better business decisions.  Simply accepting the status-quo may allow an organization to remain in its current condition.  As time moves forward, most likely the organization will be rendered into mediocrity and non-relevance.  Many MP3 player companies came into existence during the rise of this new technology.  However, limited vision and foresight quickly rendered many into the background.  Many products are temporary, especially in regards to technology.  The key is to keep innovating and change to stay on the technology curve.  Having a good product is the key for any business, but it is imperative to change and challenge assumptions.  Otherwise, the good product naturally ages, and companies have nothing to move forward to.  The basis for good business sense and practice is rooted in the ability of the organization to think critically.  It cannot be simply stated on a mission statement of core value statement, but needs to be practiced on a regular basis.  Otherwise it is simply meaningless words on a seldom read organizational chart or employee manual.

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