Creating a Critical Thinking Culture

Organizations that build a culture of critical thinking find that better decisions are made up and down the line. Problems are solved easier. Fewer people are heard to say, “How did we miss that?”

Here are three ways to create a critical thinking culture:

1. Examine the Decision Point

Critical thinking holds up, or breaks down, at the Decision Point – that moment when an individual or a team ends the discussion, and makes a decision that moves things forward. The better the critical thinking, the better the decision.

Start by examining the Decision Point as it happens. That means stepping back and looking what has gone into that moment.

Here’s what to look for: Failures of critical thinking often occur when we let our emotions get in the way, or when we seek out and agree with information that is consistent with our own points of view. In other words, we hear what we want to hear, and see what we want to see.

To check whether this is happening, ask these five questions at each Decision Point:

  • What specific assumptions are we making?
  • What evidence do we have for those assumptions?
  • Could others reasonably come to a different decision?
  • What assumptions might be behind each alternative decision?
  • Is there valid evidence that supports those assumptions?

These questions represent critical thinking in action. And if a decision can stand up to them, it’s probably a good one.

2. Designate a Critical Thinker

It’s not always easy to ask these questions – especially when you’re caught up in the moment. That’s why it’s helpful in a meeting or on a conference call to have Designated Critical Thinker – someone whose role it is to make sure the questions are asked.

The Designated Critical Thinker is selected beforehand by the meeting or conference call leader. Everyone knows from the outset that the designated person will step in before the final decision is made.

This approach builds a critical thinking culture in two ways:

  • As individuals take turns acting as Designated Critical Thinker, they get hands-on experience learning how to think critically. They can begin to apply these skills in other settings.
  • When people know that hard questions will be asked, they start anticipating them—and even start asking the questions themselves earlier in the discussion. Gradually, critical thinking takes place further and further upstream – long before Decision Point is ever reached – and becomes an essential part of the organizational culture.

3. Conduct the Critical Thinking Post Mortem

When something goes wrong, or a persistent problem remains unsolved, people tend to look around for others to blame – managers, co-workers, perhaps outside partners or contractors. But this casting of blame rarely gets to the truth.

For when there is a failure in an organization, it is almost always caused by a cascading breakdown in critical thinking. While it is easy pin the blame on others, it is usually the entire team that has failed to think critically in some way.

If an organization is to learn from its mistakes, it must examine what has gone wrong not from a culture of blame, but from a culture of critical thinking. A good way to do this is through the Critical Thinking Post Mortem.

When there has been a mistake or failure of some sort, team members who were involved in the decision-making should re-convene. Don’t focus on the actions of individuals – which almost never gets to the heart of the matter – but rather on the thought processes of the team as a whole.

Ask questions like these:

  • Did the team make an assumption that turned out to be wrong?
  • Did the team fail to give enough weight to certain critical information?
  • Did the team draw faulty conclusions drawn from the evidence?

When mistakes are examined in this way, the damaging breakdowns in critical thinking become evident. Real lessons are learned – ones that can be applied the next time decisions are made. And with each post mortem, the culture of critical thinking becomes stronger.