This is a book worth reading. Michael Kallet provides an easy to follow framework which will help you improve your critical thinking skills. Reading the full version will provide you with many more applicable insights into how to think critically and make more effective decisions.
What is critical thinking
Thinking critically involves utilizing manual thinking rather than automatic thinking. Automatic thinking is the type of thinking which we do the most. Think of that drive to work you did not remember, or when you misplaced your keys. You were thinking, but you were not aware of it.
Whilst this method of thinking is useful in some scenarios, when it comes to solving problems, it can become troublesome. It can lead us to make quick assumptions and jump to conclusions without considering all of the available options.
A good example of critical thinking in action is to imagine that you are working within a payable’s department and receive a request for a faster payment on a product. If you are in “automatic” thinking mode, then you may just repeat the standard policy of “we pay in 30 days”, however, when switching to critical thinking mode you will consider whether the person calling has already waited 30 days, or even longer before deciding how to respond.
When to use critical thinking
We cannot expect ourselves to think critically all the time, however. A simple rule in determining whether you should use critical thinking is when the result of a problem, project or goal is substantial.
When it comes to writing a personal email to a friend, a miscommunication in deciding where to eat lunch would not be catastrophic. However, imagine a misunderstanding relating to a product release. If your email is perceived differently to what you intended, it could cause tons of money to be wasted on something useless.
Critical thinking can be used in most places but try to be selective. Save your head space for the problems worth solving and take a break when solving trivial issues.
The three stages to thinking critically
Michael Kallet has designed a simple and easy to understand framework when it comes to critical thinking. The three stages to pass through are Clarity, Conclusions and Decisions.
One of the reasons problems go unsolved or solved incorrectly is because nobody understands or has clarity over the issue.
Clarity involves defining a problem and determining what the end-result should be. Imagine this example, “We need to improve quality”. Whilst on the face of it seems pretty clear, upon looking at it further there are multiple forks where things could be perceived differently. People may ask, does it mean that every item has to be of higher quality, or does it involve reducing the scrappage rate? If you were looking to gain clarity over the problem, you would redefine the problem to “We need to reduce our scrappage rate to less than 10 units per 10,000”.
Now, this isn’t entirely our fault, the systems we work under tend to avoid putting any emphasis on clarity. If you were asked what you have achieved at work and you replied “I’ve thought a lot” then it would not go down well and there is also no satisfaction from adding things to lists, only removing them.
But the paradox is that by spending a little bit more time thinking and trying to understand a problem it will pay dividends.
In the book, Kallet presents 11 different methods to provide clarity. I have picked three of my favorites and summarized them below. Make sure to check out the full version as they are all important when it comes to gaining clarity.
My 3 favorite methods from the book
1. The Bucket Method
Our minds are constantly bombarded with problems that take up our head space and focus. Not only do these affect our ability to focus, but they also affect our ability to make judgments.
Imagine an example where senior management issue a project labelled as “top-priority”. If that was something asked continuously many would be thinking “Yeah, along with everything else”. But, suppose this is a top priority, your pessimism could negatively affect the project.
To think critically and gain clarity over issues, you need to have an attitude of “there’s always a way”. We need to empty our buckets of prior negative experiences when trying to approach a problem. You should still learn from negative experiences, however, don’t let them stop you doing something if it needs to be done.
Next time you have a problem to solve, try to curb any initial reaction of judgement or disappointment. Take a step away from the issue, calm yourself down and then face it with a positive mindset.
This involves determining what all the words in a problem mean. You should try to break down the issue to its basic principles and reason from there. A statement like “We need better quality products” would be broken down into questions like, who are we, what is the need (is it urgent?), what does better mean and what does quality mean?
This is a useful method as it does not leave things to interpretation. Before inspecting each word, people could have different meanings for each word.
You can practice this through simple acts like sending emails or holding meetings. The next time you send a message, ask yourself – is what I am about to send clear? Is it presented clearly and are the important messages well placed? Or if you’re holding a meeting, make sure each word in action points set are well defined.
3. Asking Why
You should not be afraid of asking why. When we ask why we gain new knowledge, which can improve our decision making. When you ask others – especially managers, why you should have to do something, it can seem combative, however, to make critical decisions, this is a necessary question.
Imagine you’ve been asked to move all the furniture out of a room, without asking why you wouldn’t know the best place to put it. By asking why you find out that all the carpets are being cleaned. Therefore, you must place the items in a room without carpets. Without asking this simple question, you could be setting yourself up for obvious failure.
Remember that when you ask why it does not mean that you do not want to do it, it instead means – to do the best job I can, and accomplish everything to the best standard first time, I need to make sure I have all the information necessary.
Now you have more clarity over the issue which needs to be addressed, it is your job to figure out what to do about it. In this context, conclusions are solutions and lists of “to-dos” related to solving the problem. The conclusion to “We need to reduce wastage” would be “We will add a new quality control stage to our process”.
To make conclusions, Kallet provides five premises which form the basis for your arguments. These are facts, observations, experiences, beliefs and assumptions.
The first and most reliable premises to forming a conclusion are facts. These are absolute truths to which there are no debates. It’s important to note that when someone says “here are the facts” that does not necessarily mean it is. Therefore, you have to be vigilant when both delivering facts and listening to them.
Facts are important when forming a premise because they are truths which you can bank on, leverage and state with confidence. They make your arguments and conclusions strong.
Observations consist of what we read or hear. We cannot know these are completely true, and we must instead rely on the fact that whoever said it is telling the truth. If it came from a reliable source, then it is more likely to be true, but not always.
An example of observation is being in a meeting and being told that customer satisfaction is 72%. You may not know where the data has come from or how accurate it is. Therefore, it is an observation and it’s down to you to decide whether to believe it or not.
As the name suggests, these are what you have experienced. These are important to be aware of when it comes to “emptying your bucket” (see the prior point). Experiences can significantly influence the outcome of your conclusions. If you are not aware of how past experiences could alter your perception, then you are risking having conclusions which have a narrow breadth.
These are your core values. We have values that we apply to everything we do. The conclusions you reach will be determined by your values and outlook on life.
These are unique to an individual, making it difficult to tell others they are wrong. You can try but it will fall to deaf ears. The most you can do is disagree with someone’s beliefs, but that is about it.
Assumptions are thoughts which you presume to be correct. We are usually told to not make assumptions, but this isn’t possible. You cannot conclude without making any assumptions.
Instead, we should focus our thinking on not making assumptions without knowing how we arrived there or whether they are valid.
We can be at the mercy of making quick and unjust assumptions. If someone has arrived late 10 times, then you could reasonably assume that if everything else remained equal then it might happen again. But you should not make assumptions if it only happened once or twice.
Once you have arrived at a reasonable conclusion using the five premises above, you need to decide and then act.
It can be easy to mix the conclusion and decision stage. When faced with a problem many people might say “I need to decide what to do”. You should try to avoid doing this as the thinking processes for both stages are different.
According to Kallet if you have correctly followed the critical thinking framework then the decision-making process should be the easiest and quickest. These stages will overlap, however. Before making rock-solid conclusions, some of these factors will need to be considered to aid the conclusion process.
When making the final decision you should consider these factors:
- Who makes the decision?
- Is there a need?
1. Who makes the decision?
The person responsible for making the decision will depend on the conclusion you reach. Before you invest too much time into the details of the conclusion, get an early read from a decision-maker concerning any considerations about your conclusion.
2. Is there a need?
You need to ensure there is a need: There are only so many things which need to be done, if there are many other important things then its likely lower priorities won’t be approved. There is limited time, money and resources so if there is not a need for it then that will influence your decision.
Dates can drive need. If the decision date isn’t definitive, then need doesn’t exist now—even if there is a need. There’s simply no immediate pressure to decide. A later need with no date is a no need, so set a realistic, justified date by when you must decide to satisfy the need. If you cannot, then reconsider why you’re suggesting this initiative in the first place.
List criteria that matter: Although some features are nice to have, criteria should be those items which if met produce a “go decision” and if not met produce a “no go decision”.
Risk is reflected in the pro versus cons or upside-versus-downside conversations. Risk is generally based around someone’s unique measures instead of a universal measure.
Most outcomes aren’t binary. There would rarely be a complicated decision which is guaranteed to work. Even the surest decisions still have a risk-weighted to them.
Instead of asking “What’s the risk” or “What’s the downside” critical thinking requires us to say “Let’s take a look at all the risk factors to get clear on possible risks” and make a decision based off those factors.