If, like me, you’re looking for ways to improve your critical thinking and problem-solving ability, Helen Lee Bouygues, founder of the Reboot Foundation, on the latest episode of HBR’s Ideacast, presents 3 Simple Habits to Improve Your Critical Thinking:
- Question assumptions
- Reason through logic
- Diversify thought
TED-ed describes a similar five-step process:
…which Patrick Allan elaborates on here:
- Formulate your question: Know what you’re looking for specifically. Break things down to their base level.
- Gather your information: Now that you know what’s relevant to your problem or decision, research it. Reach out to an expert, read up on the subject, or talk to people who have experience with the same subject matter.
- Apply the information and ask critical questions: What concepts are at work? What assumptions exist? Is your interpretation of the information logically sound?
- Consider the implications: Look beyond the short-term and think about how your decision will shape things in the long-term. Something that will benefit you now may not benefit you in the future. What’s at stake? What can go wrong?
- Explore other points of view: By understanding other perspectives, you learn more about the subject. You’re also given an opportunity to reflect on the information you have and how you feel.
The first step in questioning assumptions, then, is figuring out when to question assumptions. Turns out, a questioning approach is particularly helpful when the stakes are high.
So if you are in a discussion about long-term company strategy upon which years of effort and expense will be based, be sure to ask basic questions about your beliefs: How do you know that business will increase? What does the research say about your expectations about the future of the market? Have you taken time to step into the figurative shoes of your customers as a “secret shopper”?
Another way to question your assumptions is to consider alternatives. You might ask: What if our clients changed? What if our suppliers went out of business? These sorts of questions help you gain new and important perspectives that help hone your thinking.
Being aware of common fallacies can also allow you to think more logically. For instance, people often engage in what’s known as “post hoc” thinking. In this fallacy, people believe that “because event Y followed event X, event Y must have been caused by event X.”
In team settings, give people the chance to give their opinions independently without the influence of the group. When I ask for advice, for instance, I typically withhold my own preferences and ask team members to email me their opinions in separate notes. This tactic helps prevent people from engaging in groupthink.